When it comes to accounting for the performance of District of Columbia Public Schools, Chancellor Michelle Rhee officially reports to the mayor. But that was hardly the case earlier this week as she patiently acquiesced to the City Council members, who pummeled her in an hours-long hearing about the state of the city’s 123 schools.
Among concerns posed to the no-nonsense administrator who has been under pressure over her controversial Reduction in Force initiative, were truancy and safe passage issues, alternative schools and disparities related to closing of the achievement gap.
Rhee was also queried on her Fiscal Year 2010 budget and decision to reassign the principal of Hardy Middle School, the preeminent arts and music facility in Georgetown. Parents, in an uproar over the matter, turned to the Council, hoping it would override Rhee’s mandate.
At the start of her testimony on Monday, Rhee reminded the Council why she was placed at the helm in the first place.
“Three years ago, it was clear to the citizens of Washington, D.C., that change was needed,” Rhee said. “Mayor Fenty and this council wisely put the governance structure in place to radically change the dynamics that had made it difficult for good reform ideas to take root in previous years.” She went on to say that it was clear that her administration would have to take a bold – even unpopular – approach to put the troubled system back on the firm footing that had eluded it for at least two decades. “We set an ambitious pace for change in order to produce results worthy of the children and citizens of D.C.,” Rhee said.
That ambitious pace may have stirred up the maelstrom that has pitted the administration against the Council from almost day one of Rhee’s tenure. Since then, Rhee has been criticized for a lack of transparency and tendency to forsake community input among other alleged faults.
Each of the Council members is being held accountable by their constituencies for keeping their concerns in front of the chancellor.
Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry wanted an update on the status of alternative schools. He apparently believed there was only one such facility, however Rhee apprised him of a couple more, to which Barry responded that ,“We need a well-defined .”
He later asked the number of employees currently working in the schools’ central office.
Rhee said there were about 500 compared to the 937 on board at the time she became chancellor.
Barry also wanted to know which officials in Rhee’s administration were being paid top dollars, but said he would write her about that later.
“I also want to invite you, very soon, to make a tour of all my Ward 8 schools and to spend time there,” said Barry. Rhee assured him she would.
Ward 7 representative Yvette Bowser took Rhee to task over the number of newly-hired teachers this academic year. Rhee said she didn’t have exact numbers at hand, and also admitted that a “significant portion” of DCPS instructors reside beyond city limits since residency is not required.
Bowser went on to note that students appear to be doing better on Advanced Placement examinations though Black students were still lagging behind.
“I think that the explanation for that is the exact same explanation that we have for our achievement gap across the city,” Rhee said, “which is that we provide a great education for students at certain schools in this city.”
She said the schools that are doing well tend to have more diverse populations.
“Meaning they have more White students at those schools,” Rhee said. “If you look at the schools that are not offering AP courses and the rigorous courses that lead up to AP preparation, those are largely our large comprehensive high schools that do not serve a diverse population – mostly African-American and Latino students.”
Hardy Middle School has served as a model for other DCPS institutions on test scores and other barometers—which is why Council members questioned the reassignment of principal Patrick Pope. If nothing at the school was broken, why remove the principal, many asked.
“The potential efficacy of this has escaped me,” said Council Chairman Vincent Gray, who locked horns with Rhee over last fall’s firing of more than 200 teachers.
When Gray asked about DCPS’s fiscal year 2010 budget, Rhee replied that there could be some changes to the $550 million projection, of which some $31 million was derived from stimulus funding.
“With the increases in enrollment that we were likely to see, we were also looking at a budget of $562 million,” Rhee said.
Gray reminded the chancellor that the April 1 deadline for submitting her budget was fast approaching.
“Today is March 22 . . . aren’t pencils down at this point?” he asked.
DCPS’ chief financial officer came to Rhee’s aid, saying final projections had been completed on March 19. The officer also said that there could be some changes to the $562 million budget.
Rhee concluded her testimony by defending her actions, saying despite some discontentment, her decisions were all for the improvement of DCPS and its 44,000 students. There have been several signs of success over the past few years, she added, and that the demand for change has been paying off.
“From teaching and learning to facilities, data and operations, though we are still far from where we need to be, parents are reporting a level of urgency and service from DCPS that is unprecedented,” Rhee told the Council.