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Michelle Rhee outspoken to the end of her tenure as D.C. schools chancellor

In one of her last public appearances as D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee took part in a College Board conference at the Washington Hilton.

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Miguel Rosario, who is a parent at Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill but lives in Ward 8, said schools in his neighborhood have felt the churn of Rhee's changes but received little benefit. "Principal after principal, security company after security company, a little touch-up paint, but the bathrooms are still the same. The children are not being educated," he said.

The changes also came, as Rhee now acknowledges, without a successful attempt to build a base of support that gave residents ownership of the changes.

"We made a ton of mistakes," she said Thursday. "I thought, very naively, that if we just put our heads down and we worked hard and produced the results, people would be so happy that they would want to continue the work. We were absolutely incorrect about that."

Other stakeholders said they appreciated Rhee's attempts at reaching out. "I think she tried to engage the parents," said Lisa Barton, former PTA president at Ballou Senior High School, from which her daughter graduated last spring. "I would have liked her to stay. I felt like she was doing something good."

Rhee's difficulties were compounded by questionable management and maladroit sense of public relations, embodied most notoriously in her broom-wielding Time magazine cover of December 2008.

A week after a triumphal announcement of a breakthrough contract last April, she touched off a furor that nearly scuttled the deal, first by disclosing that she discovered a $34 million surplus in the school system budget earlier in the year - just four months after laying off 266 teachers for budgetary reasons. That led to a lengthy public scuffle over how to pay for the pact with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who said no such surplus existed.

With teachers still raw from the layoffs, she told a business magazine that an unspecified number of the sacked educators "had had sex" with students or had engaged in corporal punishment. When she produced the actual numbers, they were tiny: one accused sexual predator and five disciplined for corporal punishment.

"It's been one explosion after another," said Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker. "I thought she would know when enough had been said. I thought she would understand the power of words."


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