By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was grilled for more than three hours yesterday by D.C. Council members unhappy with the clarity of her budget documents and her regard for their role in overseeing the District's school system.
The chancellor, who reports directly to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), has not spoken to the council as a group since an April 8 budget hearing, according to the office of council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
Council members were particularly exasperated with Rhee's handling of a proposed $100 million reshuffling of school funds that she unveiled at a Monday news conference.
The huge transfer, representing about 13 percent of the total school budget, is designed to funnel money to schools that successfully appealed spending decisions her office made under a controversial new formula. It is also intended to address imbalances in staffing and funding created by schools that exceeded or failed to meet enrollment projections.
Until the evening before yesterday's hearing, the sole documentation offered by Rhee's office for the "reprogramming" was 38 pages of spreadsheets accompanied by a cursory explanation.
"Why would you submit a document like this, that any reasonable person would know says nothing?" asked Gray, who said that such a gesture compounds the perception that she does not take council oversight seriously.
Rhee said she was trying to "find the right balance" of budget information to provide the council. (Her spokeswoman, Dena Iverson, said after the hearing that the line-by-line information in the spreadsheets was provided earlier this week in response to past requests from the council for more detail on budget matters.)
Rhee added that the fund transfer was also reflected in school-by-school budget summaries made available to the council Wednesday evening.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), in one of several tense exchanges with Rhee, complained that she had provided more information to the media about the fund shift than to the council. Rhee said that was not the case.
"I disagree with that," she said.
"You keep disagreeing with that and you won't be around here too long," said Barry, who joined council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) in filing a "disapproval resolution," a parliamentary maneuver temporarily blocking council action on the reprogramming.
Rhee went to the hearing yesterday with encouraging news for parents who had said last year's $773 million school budget was assembled with little concern for transparency or the timely release of information.
She announced steps that would put a preliminary 2010 budget in the public's hands by late February. This year's spending plan wasn't posted on the D.C. schools Web site until mid-May. She also promised revisions in a school funding formula she had introduced to make sure that every school had music, art and physical education teachers. The formula led to staff shortages and funding disparities between schools in low- and high-income neighborhoods.
"I think we learned a lot and very much took into account what we were hearing," Rhee told the council roundtable on budget matters.
But Rhee spent the larger portion of her appearance deflecting at times bitter criticism of her treatment of the council, which also sits as a committee of the whole to oversee education.
Barry took exception to Gray's decision to allow Rhee to appear first, ahead of a long line of witnesses. He said it violated a council tradition of allowing private citizens to speak first.
Rhee said that parents and other people schedule meetings with her many weeks in advance and that they would have to reschedule if she waited several hours to testify. Rhee came to a July 11 council meeting but left after four hours without speaking because of other commitments.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said it appeared from the budget summaries that despite Rhee's assurances, numerous schools were without physical education teachers. Rhee said that there were only three vacancies for PE teachers in the system and that secondary school budgets lump PE teachers in with other instructors and don't include them as a separate line item.
Catania, who chairs the council's committee on health, said Rhee had made it impossible for parents to figure out that there are PE teachers in their schools.
"Who is responsible for organizing this? This is a joke," said Catania, who is generally supportive of Rhee.
Rhee indicated that the school system's chief financial officer, Noah Wepman, seated next to her at the witness table, was responsible.
"I will admit that the sheets could be more instructive," Wepman said.
Gray asked Rhee and her staff to provide a more coherent explanation of the budget changes by the end of next week.
Catania, noting the fiscal troubles of other school districts in the region, also advised Rhee to prepare for spending cuts in case the District's finances continue to deteriorate.
"If anyone is giving you the belief or the notion that schools will be held harmless . . . they are mistaken," he said.