Rhee and the D.C. Council: Hard lessons on how to get along

By Kathy Patterson
Sunday, November 8, 2009

If Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee wanted moral support after a dispiriting day of being berated by the D.C. Council, here are some people to call: Franklin Smith. Arlene Ackerman. Julius Becton. Each was a serious educator named to lead the D.C. public schools and each had a severe falling out with the powers-that-be in the city.

Ackerman and Becton refused to respond to the D.C. Council. Smith was fired by the D.C. Financial Authority. Rhee has more power and stronger political backing than any of her predecessors, but the challenge is the same: You can't fix schools from the top down, and working from the bottom up requires working with the duly elected legislature of the District.

How to get along with the council? Pretending it doesn't exist isn't the answer. Far better would be a program of preventive maintenance made up of regular conversations and a policy of "no surprises." Council members control the school system's budget, and that alone merits time and effort. View relations with the council like visits to your auto mechanic: a necessary evil that can prevent future grief. All over the country, elected officials give superintendents political cover. Rhee already has the mayor. If she can build strong, ongoing relationships with, say, seven members of the council, the work of school reform will be far easier.

In the last two years of Anthony Williams's administration, we held regular working meetings that included the mayor, Superintendent Clifford Janey and council and school board representatives -- and that face-to-face dialogue produced the least acrimonious school budgets of the last decade. In the same period, school and city finance officials worked with community representatives on the school funding formula, another part of building broad, early support for the mayor's budget. District agencies are developing their fiscal 2011 requests right now. There is no reason the respective budget and finance officials from the D.C. public schools, the office of the chief financial officer and the council can't work together, now, on spending priorities for the school system.

Here's what not to do. In autumn 1997, I had lunch with the new chief academic officer, Arlene Ackerman. We parted on the sidewalk in the sunshine, smiles all around. I e-mailed friends in the advocacy community: "We finally have a winner here." By spring 2000, Post columnist Colbert I. King wrote that Ackerman had been "run out of town" after being "undercut by a determined handful of council members," singling me out. What happened? A commitment we made to regular meetings was not kept on either side. The absence of personal interaction created a vacuum that came to be filled with false assumptions where consistent collaboration ought to have been.

Communication is a two-way street, and politicians no less than superintendents have a responsibility to keep channels open. The notion of a superintendent or chancellor as change agent on horseback, single-handedly rebuilding a system and improving learning, is illusory. In "The Color of School Reform," Jeffrey Henig et al wrote that reforming urban schools requires "the ability to draw together and hold together a viable coalition of public and private stakeholders linked . . . by habits of collaboration, a requisite level of trust, and a pragmatic orientation toward making things work."

The D.C. Education Compact was an effort in that direction, but it recently closed its doors. The compact came to be viewed by parents as one more private-sector cheering section for public schools leaders, not a place to nurture community participation. Mayor Williams used the organization; Mayor Adrian M. Fenty did not. Something similar is needed, especially with a limited supply of leaders who can park their egos at the door and work, quietly and in sustained fashion, to improve public education.

My prescription for getting things back on track among local leaders who claim that children come first: equal doses of communication and humility, preferably well off center stage, with no press releases involved. Focus collaboratively on the next budget. The issue of questionable teacher terminations will run its course in the courts, but there is no time like the present to make certain history doesn't repeat itself with a downward spiral of charges and countercharges until there is one more upheaval and everyone loses again.

Kathy Patterson represented Ward 3 on the D.C. Council from 1995 through 2006 and chaired the council's Education Committee.

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