Interim D.C. School Superintendent Robert C. Rice accused Mayor Anthony A. Williams's administration yesterday of sabotaging the school system's efforts to secure $13 million pledged by Congress to complement the District's new federally funded school voucher program.
Rice, speaking to Washington Post reporters and editors, said the mayor's office deliberately undermined his case for the funds to sap public and congressional confidence in the schools and to advance the mayor's initiative to take over school operations.
"It's the mayor's office in its attempts to seize control and direction of the schools," Rice said, alleging a campaign of disinformation by Gregory M. McCarthy, the city's chief lobbyist to Capitol Hill and Williams's deputy chief of staff.
The Williams administration, Rice said, wanted "to keep the schools and superintendent off balance, if not the [school] board," and perpetuate "the idea with the public that there's frivolous or throw-away kind of spending."
"If there isn't a mistrust, there is certainly a lack of communication between city government and school officials," Rice said.
The allegations, which were disputed by McCarthy and an aide to Sen. Mike DeWine (Ohio), the top Senate Republican overseeing District spending, illustrate the depth of tensions between leaders of the 64,200-student school system and city government.
In recent weeks, the mayor has struggled to resolve two key issues regarding school leadership. D.C. Council members blocked a proposal by Williams to convert the superintendent of schools into a mayoral appointed post and limit the school board's role. Williams's top choice for superintendent, former New York City schools chancellor Rudolph F. Crew, turned down the job last week, saying the unresolved school oversight dispute was a major factor.
Williams spokesman Tony Bullock dismissed what he called Rice's "bizarre ramblings. . . . It's hallucinatory. There's no basis for this. It's outer space time here."
McCarthy called his criticism "absurd . . . inaccurate . . . [and] reprehensible."
At issue is $13 million approved by Congress and President Bush in January for the public schools as a condition for city officials' support of a separate, $13 million taxpayer-funded school voucher program to send children to private schools. Another $13 million was given to D.C. public charter schools.
DeWine, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the District, announced last week that Congress would withhold the public schools money until a new superintendent is named because school officials failed to submit an acceptable spending plan.
DeWine said he is drafting a letter with the top Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate D.C. funding subcommittees to withhold the money. Rice said he has not received a letter.
Rice said yesterday that McCarthy's guidance was followed, first in presenting a one-page summary of its plans to Congress in March and again before a May 11 briefing to Hill staffers. Rice said McCarthy gave no inkling to him of congressional dissatisfaction, yet privately suggested to Hill aides other ways to spend some of the money.
Rice, who made similar comments about the $13 million Friday to WJLA-TV, said yesterday that a delay in receiving the money would require the system to postpone plans to improve reading instruction, purchase books and other materials, and train teachers.
McCarthy said he was a bystander trying to patch a breakdown in communications between school officials and congressional aides who, he said, "were unable to get anyone to work with them or respond to them." McCarthy said he made suggestions in response to congressional queries.