washingtonpost.com
Fixing D.C.'s Schools

David S. Fallis and April Witt
Washington Post Investigative Reporters
Friday, November 9, 2007 12:00 PM

Washington Post investigative reporters David S. Fallis and April Witt were online Friday, Nov. 9 at noon ET to discuss the latest installment of The Post's series examining problems in the District's public schools.

A transcript follows.

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April Witt: Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us today.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for your first-rate investigative reporting -- only wish you had been on the D.C. Tax Office case!

The article sickened and angered me this morning. I hate to say it, but it reinforced my view that this is a subculture that doesn't care about kids or their education. It's a subculture, paradoxically, of greed, materialism, and the absence of values. It's that -- and not lack of money -- that has held D.C. kids back.

April Witt: Unfortunately, it's not a subculture. It's everyone. People who have been trying for years to reform the schools have told me repeatedly that have been dismayed and disheartened that there hasn't been more community outrage about the schools. Would-be reformers say that for the schools to change, people in all sectors of the city would have to demand it.

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Appalled in D.C.: As a parent in D.C., what you described in these articles is simply appalling. Not only because people responsible for working FOR our kids are in fact stealing from them, but because there have not been any repercussions. Why aren't these people fired? Why weren't the strip-club-loving guys prosecuted? Heads should roll at every level that allowed these schemes to continue -- hopefully Rhee's new administration will be given the power to clean house. Did you talk to Rhee or Fenty as part of your investigation, and if so, did they have a plan for safeguarding these accounts going forward? Thank you for your role in bringing these travesties to light.

April Witt: Thanks for weighing in. Rhee and Fenty have all sorts of plans for reforming the school system, though they have not tackled the mess with student activity funds yet. Our reporting on this package of stories illustrates how great a challenge they face. When the expectation, reinforced for decades, is that following the rules is purely optional, how do you begin to reform? You ask good questions about why there have not been more consequences for people who take advantage of school children for personal gain. I think the quote we published from the supervisor saying that the men who wined and dined out on student funds didn't think they were doing anything wrong at the time says it all.

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D.C.: Please keep this up.

I bet there are hundreds more stories like this to be told. Put one story in the paper every week until there are meaningful changes. But then, you may not want to keep writing these stories until you're 100 years old.

April Witt: Thank you for your kind comment. The Washington Post is committed to pursuing more stories about changes needed in the schools. We welcome any help readers can give us. If you know about situations in the schools that need to be documented and exposed please let us know. We are interested in learning about any situation that wastes public money and/or impairs children's ability to get a good education. My colleague David Fallis and I welcome your tips. I can be reached at witta@washpost.com My phone number is 202-334-5311. David can be reached at fallisd@washpost.com. His number is 202-334-6866.

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Capitol Hill: Thank you for your articles. As a parent with two kids in the DCPS, this sickens me. My husband and I work many hours to raise money for our kids schools -- and it can be spent on strip clubs and a gospel concert? How is a gospel concert ever even an appropriate fundraiser for a public school?.

Between my property tax money going to pay for someone's Nieman Marcus shopping sprees and this, I'm ready to move to Montana.

Why are these crimes against our kids -- and they ARE crimes against our kids -- so rarely prosecuted?

April Witt:

There are a few key reasons why people who steal from school children have gotten away with it.

First and foremost, there has been a puzzling acceptance within the school system of people breaking the system, even stealing scarce resources. It's almost treated as normal and routine.

Additionally, the U.S. Attorneys Office told us that the very lack of internal controls and poor record-keeping that make it easy to steal from student activity funds unfortunately also makes it difficult to prosecute thieves. For example, if the school employees in charge of these accounts fail to document deposits as they come in -- and then steal that money -- prosecutors have no paper trail on which to build a legal case. None of that is going to change unless and until the school system brass demands that every employee follows the rules regarding handling of these accounts -- or face firing.

We've also been told that federal prosecutors fail to go after some of these cases aggressively when the dollar amounts are not high and they have little potential to become high-profile cases. Unfortunately, that helps send the message that it's okay to steal from school children as long as you don't steal hundreds of thousands of dollars and end up on the front page of the newspaper.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a landlord in D.C. Most of my tenants are on Section 8. Hence, these are working-poor to poor people. Many of these parents could care less if the child even goes to school, let alone does well in school. Some of these kids are severely disturbed mentally. Forget about the state of the facilities. These kids would have difficulty learning in the Taj Mahal. Public schools are a reflection of the community. D.C. has deep-rooted poor people and deep-rooted rich people. As such, the schools full of poor people are a reflection of their home life. Loud. Rowdy. Drugs. Fighting. Insubordination. The most ambitious plans can't change the home life of these kids without drastic intervention. No politician has the stomach for what would really need to be done.

April Witt: The fact that many children in the school system face poverty and difficult situations at home and in their neighborhood makes it all the more imperative that they have safe, functional and constructive public schools to attend. Public education was supposed to be the great equalizer. Through public education, all children -- no matter their personal circumstances -- were supposed to have equal access to the kind of good education that could help them overcome the circumstances of their birth. For too many years that hasn't been happening in the District. That's not just a failure of the school system. It's a public failure.

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I'm just tired...: Tired of defending the schools and the city and trying to give the benefit of the doubt when people here clearly are corrupt. Fire them all.

April Witt: We hear that sentiment a lot these days and understand people's frustration. However, the administration has to be smarter than that. There are some superb people who have been laboring for years to try to teach children in a broken school system. It would compound tragedy to fire those fine employees along with the corrupt and incompetent.

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D.C. -- but not a potential D.C. public school parent: I feel really sick after reading your great reporting articles. I have a daughter in a D.C. charter school (and while I know some charters have had problems), and have no intention of sending her to a DCPS until a very public house cleaning is done of every person stealing from, defrauding, or ignoring children. I have no idea how DCPS can hope to recruit middle class families to its schools when this crap is going on. I hope Michelle Rhee starts with the schools that were mentioned in your article and makes everyone reapply for their jobs.

So here is my question, what do you think is the solution for these student activity funds? Abolishment? Central command done by a CFO of schools?

David S. Fallis: The student activity funds are very important to the schools and are key to paying for student-related activities. Without them, they would have to create alternative methods of funding yearbooks, field trips, etc., so abolishing them does not seem to be a solution. As we pointed out in the articles, and as has been reported in many audits, the primary issues are the need for controls and oversight.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a child in the D.C. Schools and participate in the PTA. I have been startled at the lack of process or accountability in the system. I know the ombudsman is meant to negotiate issues between the schools and parents, but can that office also be used or should it be used to teach parents how to watch for these problems?

David S. Fallis: I am not sure about an ombudsman, but each school is supposed to have an LSRT, or local school restructuring team. From our reporting, it is/was clear that at some schools the LSRTs are very hands on, and at others, are barely active. The LSRTs can provide a sort of monitoring function and can ask about spending of students' money. They can request copies of monthly reports and other documentation of how the money is being spent. These are public records.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a parent of an 8th grader in Alice Deal and was starting to decide on what high school he would be attending. Is it true that nearly half of the city geographically is in the Wilson school district and why is this so? In addition, is it also true that nearly half the students in Wilson are out of boundary? In order to improve the schools throughout the city, shouldn't we send these students to their neighborhood schools? How can we expect them to take ownership and improve these schools and neighborhoods?

April Witt: I don't know the answer to all your questions. I am curious to find out if you are correct that half the students at Wilson are out-of-boundary placements. It's interesting to me that out-of-boundary placements are so routine today. I can understand why involved parents eager to shop for the best education they can for their children want them. However, I have a hard time understanding why the out-of-boundary placements, as used today, are fundamentally different from the vehicles of another era that allowed white parents to shop for schools in which their children would not go to school with black children. The courts struck down those practices of an earlier era. I welcome readers who can answer this Deal parent's questions to weigh in. I'd also like to hear people's thoughts on out-of-boundry placements.

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Washington, D.C.: Great article. How much of a factor do you think race is in the prosecutors unwillingness to pursue charges against these thieves? Are they afraid of being called racists by people?

April Witt: I doubt that. I think it would be hard to construe taking aggressive action to protect public school children, black or white, as racist.

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Washington, D.C.: How about this plan? D.C. students get vouchers to go to public schools in Maryland and Virginia. This will increase the tax base because fewer parents will leave D.C. due to the school situation. Use the increased revenue to help fix the schools.

If Maryland and Virginia object, enact a hefty commuter tax and use that to help fix the schools.

April Witt: If that happened, then the most involved, demanding parents would be the ones who would manage to transfer their students to the best schools the suburbs have to offer. And the children with the least involved parents would be stuck in a school system with fewer students, fewer people in the community invested in what happened in DCPS. Wouldn't it be better if the District found a way to have good schools that served everyone at least reasonably well? Equal access to a decent public education is a right. I don't think that as a community we get to just throw up our hands and say, "The District can't deliver. We give up."

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Baltimore: I just want to say that I read the follow up story on thefts via phony property tax refunds, then read your story on the school activity fund thefts -- and what happened to the kids offends me far more. It is unbelievable that "educators" would treat activity funds as personal piggy banks. But I guess that is to be expected when convicted felons are hired to oversee those funds!

I live in Baltimore City and, lord knows, our schools are a mess, but there has been no scandal equivalent to this. Fenty and Ms. Rhee have to put every administrative employee out on the street and bring in people who are (1) competent and (2) not thieves.

David S. Fallis: Thanks for your observations ...

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Washington, D.C.: Rhee needs authority to fire central office as well as at the local school level. Thankfully we have Fenty, Rhee, Reinoso all of whom are committed to reform.

Also don't forget that the good Dr. Gandhi has control over the CFO of DCPS (or did until the Mayoral take over -- I am not sure if he still has control over the school CFO).

Incompetent, under-trained personnel should not be allowed to handle money. Keep up your good reporting.

April Witt: Thanks for your comments.

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Washington, D.C.: Today I met with my son's teacher. The teacher isn't doing enough and is over his head. I volunteered to put together science projects and art projects on the weekends that the teacher could have in his file cabinet, ready for the kids to use. He just stared at me and said, "If you want to come in and set up for lunch or clean up the toys, I could use that help." All the guy does is read to the kids and do work on the chalkboard, no arts, no crafts, no real kindergarten work, just talking talking talking and when we ask to help to improve his teaching failures he refuses the help and wants stupid janitorial work. I'm not staying at that school.

David S. Fallis: Thanks for sharing your experience.

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Anonymous: I almost fell off my chair when I read this statement at the end of the article about the two school employees who charged meals, drinks, etc. at strip clubs and fancy restaurants to a fund meant to help students: "These guys are extremely talented, and the work that they give to the program is not worth them being dismissed over a practice that may have been approved...by past directors," Monclova-Johnson said. "They weren't doing anything that they felt was wrong at the time, but maybe it was." If those two employees really felt they did nothing wrong, and Monclova-Johnson is not sure that is was wrong, then something really IS wrong with the D.C. school system. The worst thing is that students are those who will suffer the most. These practices also feed the popular perception that schools really do not need money, and that the answer to our educational problems is to give more money to private schools (which would have even less public oversight than public schools). Sad.

David S. Fallis: Thanks much for taking the time to read he articles.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for your first-rate investigative reporting -- only wish you had been on the D.C. Tax Office case!

The article sickened and angered me this morning. I hate to say it, but it reinforced my view that this is a subculture that doesn't care about kids or their education. It's a subculture, paradoxically, of greed, materialism, and the absence of values. It's that -- and not lack of money -- that has held D.C. kids back.

April Witt: Thanks for your praise for the articles. The schools, like any bureaucracy, are their own subculture. But ultimately, failure to reform them is a community-wide problems and responsibility. I would hate for our reporting to lead anyone to conclude that the problem is purely the schools bureaucracy and not the community in the wider city that has condoned that bureaucracy's failure for years.

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Washington, D.C.: Between this story and the DC tax employees that stole millions I feel very angry and betrayed. I cannot fathom how these thieves can live with themselves, having made such a mockery of public service. Not that embezzlement should ever be condoned, but I find it particularly appalling that their reasons stealing completely lack any positive purpose. No Robin Hoods here. It's not like they were trying to pay for their families' education, health care or other needs. They stole purely for the selfish reason to buy overpriced food, booze and useless "luxury" trinkets. What a travesty.

David S. Fallis: Many thanks for taking the time to read the stories.

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Fox watching the hen house?: You mentioned above that an LSRT could function as a monitor of these activity accounts, but wasn't Ms. Dance (the architect of the gospel fundraising debacle), on an LSRT? Clearly, just putting an LSRT on the job isn't enough if the LSRT itself is full of crooks.

It sickens me to read about how pervasive the corruption is...no one, it seems, can be trusted. FWIW, my kids go to a charter school, and these articles make me so grateful not to be part of DCPS.

April Witt: Thanks for your comment. There are dedicated parents serving very effectively on Local School Restructuring Teams. Having one run by a woman who turned out to be defrauding the schools is, I would hope, not the norm.

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Alexandria, VA: Of course people are going to steal...apparently there's no "real" audit system in place! The one line in the articles that killed me was the one that stated that some school officials "took the word" of the employees about their expenses. That, alone, should be enough to clean house! Where are the checks and balances? Who's watching who? Has it really gotten this bad that no one in authority cares? I just can't fathom as to why this situation got as as far out of control as it has....

David S. Fallis: Thanks for your observations. Business managers and principals are NOT supposed to disburse any money from the student funds w/o obtaining documentation of the expense from the requester. As April and I, and the auditors have documented repeatedly, that rule is blatantly ignored. Some business managers say that they disburse the funds anyway because they are concerned that by not doing so, the students ultimately suffer. There is a 15-20 page manual that lays out the rules in explicit detail. Unfortunately, no one is enforcing the rules. For example, all schools are required to get insurance to protect against theft. This is a blanket rule in the manual. Out of 146 schools, we could identify only 20 that had. If Moten had had insurance, then the chess club might have been able to recoup the funds.

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Washington, D.C.: This lack of ethics is the legacy of Marion Barry, unfortunately. He set a tone for the city and his multiple administrations filled the city government bureaucracy with under-prepared, untrained and incompetent folks. Yes, there was almost full employment, but now we are facing the consequences of the criminal tone he set, and the folks that were hired at all levels of government, many of whom are still there.

Also note that Mr. Barry still gets re-elected. Folks just don't think he sets a tone that condones criminality.

April Witt: You are not the first person to make that observation obviously. But the problems are too vast, pervasive and lasting to be blamed on one politician. Would that it were that simple.

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Washington, D.C.: Wilson has about 40 percent of its students from outside its boundary. It is true that its boundary covers almost 40 percent of the land area of D.C. because Rock Creek park is within its boundaries. Also, when Western HS was closed and became the magnet Duke Ellington school, the Western boundaries were made part of Wilson. Wilson is D.C.'s largest school (enrollment) with about 1550 students. Only Ballou approaches the size of Wilson.

David S. Fallis: Thanks for weighing in.

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Anonymous: A vote for Inspectors General. Local or national, lack of IG staffing is a real problem. IGs are often seen as impediments to "business efficiency" and reviled by the agencies they police. IGs are incredibly important to the transparent functioning of government, and are even more important in areas with obvious corruption problems.

Does Fenty have any plans for a drastic increase in IG staffing and resources?

April Witt: I don't know what the mayor's plans are regarding the District's Office of Inspector General. Obviously, stories like ours illustrate why there is a great need for a legion of empowered investigators and auditors in the city and the schools. Within the schools, the auditors in the Office of Compliance need more help. They have been lone voices crying for student activity account reforms. It was striking to us that the school auditor, John Cashmon, couldn't often couldn't get top brass to respond to his audit findings. I imagine both Cashmon and the District's Inspector General would say they need more manpower to try to document and end abuses of public trust. Then, of course, they need prosecutors willing to bring cases or else all their hard work is for nothing.

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Washington, D.C. Thomson Parent: You said you are interested in the out of boundary issue. I am a white parent that chose to use the out of boundary process. Part of the reason I chose not to use the school across from me because it was 100 percent African American. I went to bused schools in the '70s and was one of 2 white children in the class and kids of all races are cruel to those who are in the minority. Those years were some of the worst of my educated life My daughter is now at a school that is 41 percent African American, 35 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian and 4 percent white. I chose diversity. I think a lot parents seek diversity, not the segregated system that exists today.

April Witt: Thanks for weighing in. I really appreciate your frankness. Obviously, parents trying to educate their children in such a troubled system face very tough choices.

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Los Angeles: How many administrators, contractors and subcontractors does the D.C. school system have working for it? When is someone going to cut back on all the waste that goes to these useless programs? Shouldn't the teachers' union be demanding a mass firing of "administrators" so the teachers can actually get some resources?

April Witt: I don't know how many administrators, contractors and subcontractors currently do business with the school system. I know that a great deal of public money goes out the door for contractors working with the school system. If you, or any other reader, has questions or concerns about a particular contractor doing business with the schools, please let me know at witta@washpost.com.

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Annandale, Va.: To what extent has Michelle Rhee's organization been involved with DCPS personnel over the last two years?

My 2-year license as a substitute teacher for DCPS just expired -- yes, one of the worst school systems in the history of the world requires a "license" for substitute teachers.

Anyway, I do not plan to renew my license. I probably would not be called to work in D.C. Public Schools. My Virginia teacher's license includes an endorsement to teach secondary English, based on undergraduate major studies. Graduate studies include an M.A. from one of the top 25 universities in the world, and a Ph.D. in education. Moreover, I successfully maneuvered through the DCPS bureaucracy to acquire a substitute teacher license and an official ID badge -- that feat should have earned me an MBA.

I'd like to know what role private organizations have played in the DCPS personnel mess.

The school system claims to be desperately short of teachers to fill in, yet during the two years that I held a substitute license, I was called a total of zero times.

P.S. -- My ID badge shows that I was assigned to the department of "CIRR (sic) & INSTRUCT"

April Witt: Before Rhee took the top job at DCPS she headed a national organization that had a contract to recruit highly qualified teachers to District Schools. Rhee has been frank in saying that her former organization had a difficult time recruiting qualified teachers for DCPS in part because HR for the schools was so dysfunctional. In theory, that experience should give her could insight into what needs to be reformed. Thanks for sharing your own experiences with the school system.

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Ft. Washington, Md.: Your article begs the question, who's doing background checks? It defies logic that anyone with even the hint of a history of theft should be allowed to have fiduciary responsibilities.

Moreover, why aren't there some established special qualifications/certifications for anyone with the authority to collect or disperse money?

Excellent reporting. Please don't stop. The pressure has to continue until accountability is priority No. 1.

--Former DCPS Student

David S. Fallis: Good question. The school system by law conducts background checks for hiring. My understanding is that the background checks are limited in scope - i.e. they look primarily for criminal activity w/in a limited time frame. We were told that the school system does not take ask about or take into account a person's own financial stature when they are hiring for positions that involve the handling of finances. We asked the school system many weeks ago to provide us with a written description of the job requirements to serve as a business manager. As we noted in the story, they couldn't provide one. The woman in the story who had a conviction for theft had been hired to another position w/in the school system, despite the theft. She was then promoted to business manager and at that time, apparently no one looked into what was found the first time she was screened (and hired).

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Anonymous: About Wilson High School:

I don't know what the percentage is for out-of-boundary students, but I can tell you why they are there. Wilson has several "academies," which are open to out-of-boundary students on a competitive basis, e.g., HAM (Humanities, Arts, & Music), WISP (Washington International Studies Program), and a few others. My daughter is in-boundary, but she still chose to apply to, and was accepted by, a Wilson academy (HAM). I know of kids outside the Wilson boundaries who have been rejected by one of the academies, so it is clearly a competitive process. We have been told that there are NO spots for out-of-boundary students, other than through application to one of the academies.

A Wilson Parent

David S. Fallis: Thanks for writing in w/your observations.

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Alexandria, Va.: Gee...it's a pretty simple concept. Any business that knows what they're doing does an inventory AT LEAST once a month and compares it to the invoices of products purchased and sales receipts to comprise a P&L statement. Are D.C. school officials that stupid to not know basic accounting principles? Thanks for the eye-opening articles...I hope they struck fear not only in those responsible for this fiasco, but to parents of the students who have, or may, suffer the consequences of ignorant people who think they can steal from our future leaders.

David S. Fallis: Oversight by city finance (dcps ocfo) is limited primarily to a monthly/quarterly desk review of a Quicken printout for each school, which may or may not describe the reason for an expenditure. That task falls to one person who has other duties in addition to fielding reports from the 146 schools. From our looking at those reports, we found they often lack descriptions for specific expenditures and certainly do not include the backup documentation. Only when there is reason to suspect something is wrong, do auditors get involved.

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Former DCPS Teaching Fellow: First, thank you for bring the issue of money misappropriation, theft, and deception to light. It's easy for non-DCPS personal to say "Fire them all" but what I've experienced is that competent employees are difficult to find. Many a time friends and co-workers and I discussed the issues plaguing DCPS. Solutions are easy to generate but finding qualified, appropriate personnel to fill positions is the harder task. Frequently hires are the best of the worst.

David S. Fallis: I appreciate your comments.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is there a connection between your investigative series and the appointment of Michelle Rhee? I.e., as she comes in as a reformer, did an editor at the paper think "this would be a good time to put the spotlight on what needs reforming." Or alternatively, did someone associated with Rhee or Fenty suggest these topics to The Post?

This kind of scandalous story -- and completely true -- could create the political environment in which Rhee could get the firing power she seeks.

April Witt: There is absolutely no connection beyond the fact that both the newspaper and the mayor knew the schools were deeply troubled and needed scrutiny. The Post had put together a special team of reporters to examine the schools even before Fenty took over the system and hired Rhee. Just so you don't think there is a conspiracy here, the day Rhee's hiring was announced I had a story in the paper saying that one of the biggest problems with the schools historically was too much turnover in the top job. The history has been that would-be reformers come in at the top of DCPS, and then, just as they are beginning to figure out what needs to be done and how, they are toppled by tough city politics and an uncooperative bureaucracy in the schools. And so it goes.....

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D.C.: Thanks for the great piece...it is what good newspaper reporting should be.

What a mess. The D.C. Schools reminds me of "The Sopranos" episode where the mob got hold of a sporting goods store and ran it into the ground while stealing everything in sight.

Keep after these guys/gals!

David S. Fallis: Thanks for taking the time to read the stories and followup with comments.

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Inside the Beltway: One way to fix D.C. schools is to stop the problems before they start. With the current problems, it's been said that the parents didn't bother to speak up and speak out, but no one really cared until D.C. became the epicenter for gentrification and revitalization, thereby bringing in parents of different income levels than the majority of D.C. parents.

So, let's curb teen pregnancy, start a public family empowerment initiative and reduce the number of families on public assistance. In other words, take the Joe Clark approach to fixing D.C. schools.

April Witt: Thanks for your observations.

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Cap Hill, D.C.: I used to work at DCPS HQ. Generally speaking, there was a complete acceptance of mediocrity. While I didn't observe criminal activity, I did observe a lot of "overlooking" of problems. I am not sorry I left -- that place is a mess.

David S. Fallis: Thanks for providing your comments.

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Chicago example: This could be a lesson for Michelle Rhee; she should check out what Paul Vallas did with the Chicago school system. Before he focused on the academics, he cleaned house, trying to eliminate financial waste and corruption like this. No one is going to trust you with the academics if your financial house isn't in order.

And ahem, he hired an investigative reporter from the Sun Times to serve as Inspector General. She was ruthless in rooting out these kinds of shenanigans.

April Witt: It's a good time for someone to be ruthless in rooting out shenanigans.

Regarding your hint about the investigative reporter from Chicago become school inspector general......Ahem, thanks. But no thanks!

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Manager of Strip Club Guys: In light of Rhee's request for more firing power, what would it take to fire that manager who said "maybe" the strip club guys did something wrong, and said they are so talented she could not drop their contracts? Could she be fired simply for what those comments represent, or is she basically safe within the rules for firing employees?

David S. Fallis: Thanks for your observation.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any concern on the part of The Post (which has a seat on the Federal City Council) that these kinds of articles further demoralize people and increase the desire for privatizing the public school system?

April Witt: I can't speak for The Post. Personally, however, that's a great concern. I would hate to think that our documenting problems gives anyone an excuse to further abandon public school children. My guess is, that readers who react to our story in that manner are already looking for an excuse to abandon District public schools or to justify their already having done so.

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April Witt: We are out of time. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read the stories and join this chat. David and I are grateful for your participation. Good afternoon.

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