Correction to This Article
This column includes corrections made of a version published in the newspaper and earlier online. The earlier version erred in saying that local philanthropy groups said they would have given D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee $12 million or more to cover a budget gap that she blamed for nearly 400 layoffs. Groups said they would have given her that much money if she'd cooperate better with them, but the money would have gone to support other expenses such as professional development or after-school programs. Philanthropy groups typically do not donate money to cover schools' operating expenses.

Robert McCartney: D.C. Schools Pay When Rhee Snubs Donors

The Washington Post's Robert McCartney examines how Michelle Rhee's lack of information disclosure with local charitable organizations may have contributed to the budget crisis affecting the D.C. school system.
By Robert McCartney
Thursday, October 15, 2009

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee says a $12 million budget cut just forced her to lay off nearly 400 teachers and other staff. But local philanthropy groups say they would have given her that much money and more, albeit for different purposes, if she'd cooperate better with them.

Although there are exceptions, many of the region's foundations and other charitable donors are not providing money to help the D.C. school system. They complain that Rhee won't tell them how the money would be spent and has shown little interest in building a partnership with them. Some are also holding back until Rhee gets a new labor contract with the Washington Teachers' Union, which won't happen soon given the layoffs controversy.

The cool relations between Rhee and much of the local philanthropic community offer yet another example of the downside of her go-it-alone leadership style. Everybody wants to see her fix the D.C. schools -- who wouldn't? -- but she resists sharing information or bothering to charm people, even when they can help her. Rhee said she received lots of help from private groups, but it's clear that more could be available.

"I don't think she has been as open to partnerships as our foundation community would have liked," Terri Freeman, president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, said of Rhee. "Everybody wants to be of assistance. . . . The only way we're going to find out if we can help is to have a little bit more of an open relationship."

The chancellor's approach contributed to a casualty Sept. 30, when the D.C. Education Compact shut down for lack of funds. The compact, together with another education funding group that it absorbed, has channeled $9 million to the D.C. schools since it was formed in 2004. However, it was frustrated by its inability to establish good ties with Rhee after she arrived in 2007. That aggravated the difficulty of raising money in an economic downturn.

"If she had been more supportive and recognized the value of the work of the compact, then that would have been a strong message to local funders to support the compact as well," Donna P. Stowe, executive director of the compact, said. "Her whole manner of working with the [philanthropic] community needs to be much more of an open and true partnership."

Although local philanthropists said they could have raised substantial amounts for Rhee by pooling resources, the money wouldn't have gone to cover operating expenses such as teachers' salaries, which donors typically don't cover. Instead, they would have likely paid for extras such as professional training for teachers and after-school programs.

A key moment occurred in July 2008 when Rhee met at the World Bank with dozens of top donors who belong to the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. She asked for donations of about $40 million, which she hoped to combine with grants from national foundations to give her a total of $70 million, according to several people who attended the meeting. The donors were disappointed when Rhee said she would provide little detail about what the money would pay for.

The atmosphere was better at a meeting three months ago between Rhee and the grant makers, but few are giving money yet.

"In her relationships with what I call the educational groupies, I think it's been all across the board. Some of them she has clearly turned away. Some of them she has been willing to be partners with," said Michael N. Harreld, regional president of PNC Bank and chairman of the education committee of the Federal City Council.

Rhee's approach "bruises people and makes them feel rejected and dejected," Harreld said. But he added: "She feels she has a short time to make achievements. She believes that if she chips a little china along the way, that's acceptable."

Asked to comment, Rhee declined to go into detail. She said she "can point to people who've given us a ton" of support and mentioned the CityBridge Foundation as one contributor. As to some local funders' chagrin over her reluctance to share information and build partnerships, Rhee said, "Nobody has told me that directly."

Rhee has told acquaintances that she doesn't have time to deal with all the local philanthropists who want to give her money but want a say in school reform in exchange. She prefers to go to national foundations, which have more resources, and to local ones that give her a freer hand.

It's unclear how much success she's had. Rhee cooperated in setting up a private funding group, the D.C. Public Education Fund, which has a high-powered board that includes New York Education Chancellor Joel I. Klein and prominent businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Neither the fund nor Rhee would say how much money it has raised. One local philanthropic leader who supports Rhee said the sums are sizable, although some were pledged on condition of achieving a labor contract.

The city hired Rhee to shake things up, but the tug of war with the philanthropists underlines how she needlessly alienates potential allies. If she hasn't got enough time to hold local donors' hands, then she should appoint someone to do it. The foundations would probably pay for the position.

Evans: Blame Me

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a Rhee supporter and finance committee chairman, is sick of the finger-pointing between the chancellor and much of the council over who's responsible for the layoffs. He said he's the one who pushed the council in July to hold the line on school spending.

"Everybody's using the [budget] numbers now to their own benefit, so they can blame somebody else for these teacher firings," Evans said. "My job is to make sure the city balances its budget. You can just blame Jack Evans."

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). E-mail me at

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