Rhee's pride could trip up admirable effort

by Robert McCartney
Sunday, November 1, 2009

The future of the District's school system may well be decided by whether Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's forceful reform campaign becomes mired in a swamp of her own self-defeating hubris.

A lively, dramatic D.C. Council hearing Thursday illustrated again the need for Rhee to temper her autocratic approach, especially by communicating and collaborating better with the body that approves her budget.

On balance, I think she'll continue to move forward despite the emergence of potential legal problems. Her admirable, ambitious efforts are showing results in the form of higher test scores, spruced-up buildings and stabilized enrollment.

However, part of any schools chief's job is dealing effectively with the city's elected representatives, and there, Rhee is coming up short. The hearing revealed instances in which she circumvented the council's action and delayed giving it important information about the origins of last month's controversial teacher layoffs.

For now, Rhee can count on just enough support in the council to keep it from blocking her and her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), from pushing ahead. That could change, though, if she doesn't wise up.

Admittedly, some council members postured for television at the hearings and bullied Rhee to show how tough they are. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) has a political motive for bludgeoning her, as he is considering running for mayor partly on an anti-Rhee platform.

But even some of Rhee's strongest allies were practically begging her to share more information with them and get along better with Gray.

"I will continue to support your reform. I need you to be a better communicator," David A. Catania (I-At Large) said. "I need more respect and understanding directed toward the chairman, and I don't know how many more times we can have this discussion."

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told Rhee: "I do know you were making progress. . . . Now I think you're further apart from our labor force."

The strained relations between Fenty and Rhee, on one side, and the council and the Washington Teachers' Union seem to be out of sync with the goals of some powerful people in the Obama administration. Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan strongly praised the cooperative spirit that led to a labor agreement between the city of New Haven, Conn., and the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU's parent organization.

"This is a really important progressive labor agreement. It's one that folks around the country should take note of. Basically, everyone came together, the school district, the union, the city," Duncan said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Two-year-old negotiations between Rhee and the union over a new contract are currently in a deep freeze while the union fights the layoffs.

At the hearing, Rhee was poised and even conciliatory at times. She also sounded self-righteous, though, especially in her repeated statements that she acts only in the interest of children. That maddened some council members, who said they, too, care about children first.

Three revelations at the hearing illustrated the communication problems, and some could mean legal difficulties for the D.C. school system:

-- Rhee acknowledged that she decided on her own in August to reverse a council decision to cut back sharply on summer school. She chose to save money instead through the Oct. 2 layoffs. Gray and other critics apparently were wrong to suggest that Rhee's switch broke the law. But they had every right to complain that she should have told them earlier.

-- Rhee said she was aware in July of a budget shortfall of at least $12 million but didn't tell the council until September. Meanwhile, the council approved the 2010 budget on July 31 and Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi certified it, without knowing about the deficit. Rhee said she planned to cut central office spending to cover the gap, but it widened unexpectedly in early August.

-- Even staunch Rhee supporters, including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), said they didn't fully understand what caused the deficit of $43.9 million that Rhee blamed for the dismissals of 266 teachers and others. Several council members accused her of creating it artificially, at least in part, by such actions as hiring 934 teachers from April to August. The union is saying the same in a lawsuit seeking to reverse the layoffs. Rhee denies concocting the shortfall.

Rhee said after the hearing that she plans to reach out. "Everyone agrees that we want to move toward a more productive and positive climate," she said. "I am going to talk to as many council members as I can to get as much input as possible in the steps that we can take to move in that direction."

She can still rely on the backing of at least five of the council's 13 members -- Catania, Wells, Evans, Graham and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). That number is significant, because it's just enough to keep the council from getting the nine votes necessary to override a Fenty veto.

Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who supports school reform but is growing more critical of Rhee, said in an interview that the chancellor should see the world less starkly. "She has this dichotomy which is not a correct one: Either do what I want, everybody be damned, or I'm giving up," Cheh said. "You can accomplish your goals and work with other people. "

E-mail me at mccartneyr@washpost.com.

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