Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

When it comes to kids, Michelle Rhee talks a big game.

Since becoming schools chancellor in June, the 37-year-old picked by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to revive the D.C. Public Schools has minced no words decrying the state of the system she now runs—how she knows that the District’s children are being denied a quality education, how there’s an “achievement gap” separating students on opposite sides of the city.

Of late, Rhee’s oratory has alighted on another key topic: adults.

At a D.C. Council hearing on Nov. 2, Rhee said this to councilmembers: “I am convinced that we must not let the rights, privileges, and priorities of adults to take precedence over what is in the best interests of students. We cannot allow children to languish while we try to remediate adults. We cannot forsake their futures for adult issues in the present.”

The next day, in front of dozens of students and parents attending an education round table at the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus in Southeast, she pounded the grown-ups once more: “A lot of these people forget why we’re here and what we’re doing. They think it’s about adult issues, adult problems, adult priorities,” she said.

“If some adults are mad, some adults are frustrated,” she continued, “it is because I know they have to be giving kids the education they deserve.”

DCPS employs about 16,000 adults as teachers, administrators, and support staff, but the adults that Rhee is talking about these days are some of the more than 900 employees that work in the DCPS central office. If you work in the nine-story building at 825 North Capitol St. NE, make no mistake: Rhee’s calling you out.

To that end, Fenty and Rhee sent to the D.C. Council a piece of legislation that would reclassify the bulk of central-office workers as “at-will” employees, meaning they would no longer be subject to certain employment protections and could be fired essentially at will. And, yes, plenty of adults—mostly labor unions—have lined up to oppose the measure.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

A document distributed at the event detailed Rhee’s “Commitment to Improve District of Columbia Public Schools.” Among a handful of promises in the one-page memo was this: “At the DCPS central office, people have not been held accountable for their work, and I am determined to change this. People who do not do their jobs well should not be working for a school system.”

Spoken like a true DCPS boss. At least since the late 1980s, and even before, the central office has become a metaphor for all that has gone wrong with the D.C. Public Schools—all the stalled reform plans, all the forgotten, expensive consultant studies, all the revolving-door superintendents. All of them went to the central office to die.

Washington Post columnist Colbert King has repeatedly hammered DCPS headquarters over the past few years. In a column this summer, King animated the inanimate into something called “the Central-Office Hydra”: “It is a large and powerful creature.…It has kept schools from opening on time, swallowed repair orders by the thousands, made teachers’ paychecks disappear, consumed tax dollars by the millions without producing any discernible results and, ultimately, acquired a well-deserved reputation for treating schoolchildren as if they are nuisances.”

“Certainly from the parents’ perspective, people have railed against the central office as long as I can remember,” says Mary Levy, the longtime schools activist now affiliated with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Her daughter entered DCPS in 1975.

But the central office, though usually treated as a bloated monolith, isn’t exactly monolithic. It’s a collection of systems and procedures and technologies and hierarchies and, yes, people that happen not to be particularly effective at its intended function. And virtually every leader that DCPS has had in the past 15 years has attempted to fix the central office in one form or another: Franklin Smith, Julius Becton, Arlene Ackerman, Paul Vance, Elfreda Massie, Clifford Janey, and now Rhee.

In other words, plenty of central-office drones have been fired over the years, and not much has improved. So why should anything be different this time around?

Just determining what exactly constitutes the DCPS central office is a tricky issue. A working definition that’s been used in recent years includes DCPS employees who don’t work directly with children (meaning, not teachers or principals) and aren’t wage-grade workers (not custodians, cafeteria workers, security guards, bus drivers, et al.). That leaves a whole lot of folks: the chancellor and her senior staff, communications, legal, procurement, finance, professional development, special education, athletics, technology, academic standards, facilities, food service, security, grant oversight, and dozens of other offices.

Whatever definition of “central office” you use will include the human-resources department, and in a school system full of dysfunctional operations, the DCPS personnel operation is possibly the most maligned.

For a DCPS teacher, the frustrations of dealing with the central office have their epicenter on the 6th floor of 825 North Capitol, in the HR department waiting room. If you’re a teacher, anytime something goes wrong with a paycheck—and things will go wrong with your paycheck—don’t even bother with a phone call. It means trekking downtown and planting your ass in the waiting room, often for hours at a time.

One principal says she insists on helping her teachers out when dealing with that department, and that means going down to “825” herself. “As a principal, when I go to HR, I get some attention,” she says. “There’s no way I could send a teacher I value to navigate those waters on her own. You sit there waiting for hours.”

The solution, she says, is to avoid getting the central office involved wherever possible—teachers, for instance, won’t tell headquarters about an address change if they can avoid it, because that could mean not receiving a check for weeks.

The principal herself says she recently married and changed her name, but she hasn’t told the HR department about the change. There’s just too much chance they’ll screw it up, she says.

Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy chancellor, has had plenty of opportunity to get acquainted with the DCPS personnel department. Henderson spent seven years with the New Teacher Project, the recruiting organization that Rhee once headed, working with various HR departments across the country. Several of those were spent focusing on DCPS, trying to improve the process for hiring new teachers. Now, she’s in charge of fixing it up.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

What exactly is the problem down there? “Any well-performing human resources department has some kind of an information management system,” she says. “We don’t here in D.C.”

Take Form 52, she says. Any time any major personnel action takes place—a hiring, a firing, a transfer—a “52” gets filled out and passed around. A lot.

This is what happens when a principal wants to hire a teacher, says Henderson: A principal will fill out a 52 saying she needs, say, a fifth-grade teacher. It goes to the budget department, which makes sure there’s money in the school’s budget for said teacher. Then it goes to HR, which makes sure there’s a fifth-grade vacancy to fill. At that point, the principal can actually find a teacher to do the job, and she fills the name in on the 52. The form then goes to the regional superintendent, who has to sign off on the hire. Then it goes to HR, which “codes” the form. Then it goes to budget, which “codes” the form again. Then the 52 comes back to HR—keep in mind this is a physical piece of paper that’s been passed around all this time—and hopefully, probably weeks later, the teacher will get a paycheck.

“We could change people all day and every day,” Henderson says, “but the best, smartest, most capable customer-service rock stars would be stymied by the lack of technology.”

That’s just the beginning, she says: Personnel staffers can’t change employees’ pay codes—that job can only be done by payroll and budget staff. Say you want to change an address. That is “not something you can easily do online,” she says. And whatever systems that do exist end up going down a couple of times a week.

The fix? Henderson says the plan is to move all of the DCPS records to a system called PeopleSoft, which is what the rest of the D.C. government uses. In an encouraging sign, this isn’t being done in-house: The city’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer is handling it. Still, the timeline for changes isn’t quick: 18 to 24 months.

What’s happened in the past, says Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund, is that new, computerized systems have been dropped on to old paper-based procedures without actually changing the process. “When technology comes in as an overlay, it just means more work,” she says. “People have this database, which is supposed to have work orders and the age of components and serial numbers. It’s not really functional; there’s pieces of it they use.”

What happens instead is that a facilities manager will keep pertinent data in his own Excel spreadsheet. “It’s not part of an integrated data warehouse system,” Filardo says. “We haven’t gotten the benefit of [the facilities database], and in fact, it’s probably lost us efficiency.”

Henderson mentions a similar problem in personnel, with a similar solution: DCPS paid for a custom “vacancy management system” that would tell administrators exactly where job openings exist in the school system, making it easy to figure out where an employee could be placed. Thing is, it’s an Internet-based piece of software, and the school system’s Internet connections can’t handle enough data bandwidth to run it reliably. “It takes too long to try to use the program, so people default to an Excel spreadsheet instead of using the program we purchased,” Henderson says.

Very few of these things have been a secret to city honchos over the years. In 2000, in the waning days of the Ackerman administration, John Koskinen was tasked by Mayor Anthony A. Williams with examining DCPS operations. Koskinen had big-time credentials as a former specialist in corporate turnarounds, and he’d later become Williams’ city administrator.

Koskinen had a look at the HR department, and what he found wasn’t so much shocking as mundane. “It was primarily an issue of the records process,” he says. “There was nothing very exotic about the problem.…It’s what people call blocking and tackling”—that’s management-speak referring to fundamentals that need to be addressed.

Besides HR, Koskinen looked at the school system’s financial operations and its procurement apparatus, and he found many of the same problems: “very little technology and complicated procedures.”

Things like systems management don’t usually make it on to the front burner, and Koskinen says that’s not unique to DCPS. “Principals and superintendents don’t have a background in making systems run,” he says. “The minute you start calling them support systems, you start putting them in a separate category.”

One problem he identified was that when a new system for payroll or procurement was introduced, the same people who were tasked with running the system on a daily basis also were responsible for transitioning to the new setup, which never quite worked correctly. “Once you get behind in one of those systems, you’re just putting more bad information in after it,” he says. “It makes it hard to dig yourself back out.”

Then there was your garden-variety fear of change. In the procurement department, Koskinen recalls running into resistance when he proposed giving principals the power to make minor repairs—fixing a broken toilet, for instance. Central-office types responded that they were worried what would happen if shoddy work was done. Koskinen proposed making a list of approved contractors. “And if they did a bad job, you take it off the list,” he says. Nothing much happened with that initiative.

There was one reform that actually ended up happening, he says: The fiscal year and the school year never quite matched, leading to all sorts of budget problems. That eventually got fixed.

“You wish more had changed,” says Koskinen, who now heads up the U.S. Soccer Foundation. “Actually, not a lot has changed.”

Arlene Ackerman spent three years as head of the D.C. Public Schools, taking over from Julius Becton in 1998 and staying until she left for the San Francisco superintendent’s job in 2000. Early on in her tenure, she did the requisite housecleaning, firing 600 central-office and other staff members.

Today, Ackerman’s on the faculty at Columbia University, and she speaks surprisingly fondly of her time at DCPS. “D.C. was the hardest district I ever encountered. It was also the most rewarding, because I found incredible people doing things with incredibly limited resources.” She talks about the central-office workers who spent nights in their offices in sleeping bags.

That’s not to say all of them were the salt of the earth: Among the houses she cleaned, Ackerman says, was in the personnel department, a decision she’s come to regret. “I think there’s a tendency when you don’t really understand what’s going on…that the system is broken, so it must be the people who are incompetent. A broken system will make brilliant people look incompetent.”

“It’s not about the people; it’s about the infrastructure. It’s much more complicated to deal with those issues.…It was a hard lesson, in reflection,” Ackerman says. “I realized I had to look at a lot of things.”

Fixing things like computer systems and instituting procedures and protocols cost money—quite a bit of money. Fenty and Rhee may have made a tactical mistake when they took over DCPS by insisting that the system didn’t need any additional funding. That’s already turned out not to be the case: Fenty’s tapped some $81 million in surplus funds for the schools already this year, much of it earmarked to pay for severance packages for all those newly “at will” employees Rhee no longer wills to keep.

Rhee concedes that more money will be necessary in the short term to “fill the hole”—pay for things like retroactive paychecks and negotiated raises and, yes, new technology that were not included in previous budgets. She stands by her confirmation testimony: DCPS has enough money, but that assumes “every dollar is used effectively.” DCPS, she says, is not at that point yet.

After Ackerman left, Paul L. Vance became superintendent in 2000. The central-office-reform bug hit him soon enough, and he came up with a plan: We’ll just fire everybody in the central office and just hire back the folks we really want to keep.

The plan led to this sentence in the Washington Post: “The changes, Vance said, should mean that parents’ calls are returned promptly and courteously.” Ha.

One of the folks who got a pink slip was Patrick Fiel, who headed up the school system’s security division. By all accounts, Fiel was competent, well-respected, and good at his job. He had been brought in back in 1997, in the heart of the control-board era, by Becton. He spent six years in the system improving school security and building his own reputation as a guy who could get things done.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“He was just effective, efficient, made things happen,” says Kathy Patterson, the former Ward 3 councilmember who served on that body’s education committee for many years.

After Vance’s dictum came down, Fiel decided he’d had enough. “Some of us just said, ‘We’re not going through this every time there’s a new superintendent,’” he says. “I decided, how many times do I have to go through this?”

Fiel had been through three regimes: Becton, Ackerman, and now Vance. Three bosses—and three housecleanings—in six years was enough for him. “I said, ‘I’m not reapplying for a job I have already.’” He stayed through the fall, then left to start a consulting practice.

Patterson recalls a budget hearing when discussion came up of a closed-circuit television system that administrators at Deal Junior High School had installed in lieu of metal detectors. Fiel apparently knew a good idea when he heard it: When he came back to the committee the following year, he’d installed a similar system in several other schools, leaving Patterson impressed.

When Fiel quit, “he had just started to work on some of the systemic issues, like some of the security doors,” Patterson says. That was back in 2003. Fenty and Rhee announced a plan to get security doors to nine DCPS schools less than a month ago.

Today, Fiel works for security giant ADT as a public safety adviser for education. He says that he’d be happy to work with the Fenty/Rhee administration on improving DCPS security—as a consultant.

In March 2003, less than a year after Vance first announced his housecleaning plan, DCPS announced that the system had about 640 more employees than budgeted for, and it could not show whether the plan had succeeded in either cutting staff or saving money.

Erika Landberg, a former school board member now with the DC VOICE nonprofit, says the Vance approach ended up backfiring. “What happens under that kind of effort is that folks who do the best job and have other options, they’re the ones to leave. The ones who don’t have many options, they stay. The best say, ‘I don’t need this,’ and they end up going away.”

Call Fiel another victim of the “churn”—the constant turnover and reshuffling that’s a by-product of having a new schools head every two years. (Fact: Since 1987, DCPS has had 10 different chiefs.)

What explains the churn?

For one thing, it’s about making a stamp on an institution that’s almost indefensible—and it’s a lot more politically palatable than taking on teachers and principals.

“When a new administration comes in, the thing they really have control over is what happens at 825,” Filardo says. The thinking, she says, is that once the central administration is fixed, then a chief executive can say to principals and teachers: ‘I can really hold you accountable, because then you really can’t blame me because you can’t get teachers hired or your building is such a dump.’”

And those changes typically involve firing or reshuffling personnel, because dealing with the systemic problems that might cause those personnel to do their jobs badly is time-consuming, expensive, and not as easy to justify.

Another issue, though not as much of one recently, is that budget cuts invariably hit the central office first, as parents and activists agitate to keep the cuts “away from the classroom” and toward a bureaucracy invariably described as “bloated.”

Levy spent months poring over payroll records to figure out just how bloated. There were just more than 1,000 full-time central-office positions in fiscal 1981. As the ’80s progressed, there was indeed bloat, resulting in a headquarters workforce nearly 1,500 strong by 1991. But as the District’s fiscal woes mounted in the ’90s, the central office was almost continuously pared back until only 703 full-time employees remained in fiscal 1998, and employment levels hovered around there until the past couple years. Since 2003, the numbers have shot up slightly again, with 914 full-timers on this payroll in fiscal 2007.

But the bloat may be back: The recent rise in central-office employment is compounded by the fact that fewer children actually attend D.C. Public Schools. Vouchers, charter schools, and demographic trends have helped suck about 20,000 students from public schools in the past 10 years.

Compounding things is a turnover problem exacerbated by the fact that DCPS employees can make as much as 30 percent less than people doing the same job in the rest of the D.C. government. Once DCPS employees get trained, they leave for a fatter paycheck in another agency, says Cathy Reilly, who heads up the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators activist group.

So the churn continues and likely will continue. The result is that few people stay in the same positions for long. Reilly, for instance, works closely with the system’s chief of secondary schools. From the past five or so years, Reilly can name six people who were in charge of DCPS high schools: Wilma Bonner, Lynette Adams, William Wilhoyte, Juan Baughn, Maria Tukeva, and, most recently, Dan Gohl.

And, Reilly says, the churn can trickle down. “There’s an enormous turnover,” she says. “You can see it in the turnover at the principal level, too. We’ve had eight principals at Eastern [Senior High]. Nobody comes in and hits the ground totally running.”

What gets lost, for one thing, is institutional memory—for instance, people who know what exactly has been tried already in the constant parade of reforms. “You don’t want people to keep making the mistakes of their predecessors,” Levy says. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try things again, just you should know why it didn’t work.”

More than that, the churn causes employees to lose faith. Says a former high-ranking DCPS administrator, “It’s almost as if people have an aversion to the adage ‘Practice makes perfect.’”

“Every time you bring in new people, it takes time for them to get acclimated to the culture.…You’ve got to have a culture that is stable,” the former administrator says. “You don’t have a healthy culture right now for fostering the reform that we need. It’s trust—it’s trust that you’re going to stay with me and make this thing right.”

Rhee says she’s familiar with the Vance approach to central-office reform, and she insists that’s not her style. “When I first came in, people said, ‘That’s what you have to do.’ I said that’s exactly what you don’t want to do,” she says. “I’m not here to make a statement; I’m here to run a school system.”

“I don’t think this is necessarily clicking in people’s heads: If I start firing effective workers, that doesn’t help me,” she continues. “That’s shooting myself in the foot. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not dumb.”

In spite of all the excuses—the bad systems, the half-functioning technology, the churn—there’s virtually no disagreement that 825 North Capitol houses more than a few unresponsive, incompetent, and just plain lazy employees. Even the folks who say that bad personnel isn’t the central office’s main problem will throw in a sentence like this: “Every large organization has its low performers.”

Rhee herself is happy to recount a few of the “low performers” she’s encountered since coming to DCPS. At the Nov. 2 council hearing, for instance, she told of employees who refuse to answer their phones. When complaints get thrown upstairs to her office, Rhee said, folks go down to figure out what’s going on, and “Guess what? Lo and behold, they’re often sitting at their desks with working telephone sitting next to them.”

Sometimes the problems are even more egregious. Rhee also noted that an investigation caught one local school employee coming in to work to sign in and sign out at the same time, leaving in the morning, probably for another job “where he’s being held accountable.” When DCPS moved to fire him, the paperwork wasn’t processed quickly enough under District rules to actually complete the firing. That employee, Rhee said, is still on the DCPS payroll.

Just how much of the DCPS central-office quagmire is a people problem? Says Rhee: “A pretty significant part of it.” She acknowledges that systems and infrastructure are big problems, but make no mistake, Rhee says, there’s no central-office reform unless you straighten out the people problem. “We have right now a pretty significant number of people who are not effective,” she says.

The central office, Rhee says, is “compliance-driven. We are a 100-percent compliance-oriented culture, but we’re not in compliance with anything. We are at high-risk status with the [federal] Department of Education, we have court-appointed receivers, consent decrees.”

Part of the problem, Rhee says, is that central-office employees have never been given job goals and evaluated on any sort of meaningful basis. Under her reform plan, all central-office employees will be evaluated four times yearly. Henderson says that’s exactly what she’s trying to make happen in the personnel office right now. “We don’t have clear expectations around customer service,” she says. “If we say it’s not acceptable to have a full voice-mail box, that’s new around here.”

When asked what her idea of a well-performing central office should be, Rhee says it’s “one that understands that its function is to serve schools. It’s not there to run schools, and that is an important distinction.”

So far, there’s reason to be optimistic. A high-school principal says he’s had good experiences dealing with human resources and facilities since Rhee took over. Landberg’s group, DC VOICE, published its annual “Ready Schools Project” study on Nov. 12, which examines just how well prepared DCPS was for the first day of school. “Things were different this summer,” Landberg says.

According to the study, nearly 95 percent of principals reported that at least some promised repairs had been carried out over the summer. The year before, only 70 percent of principals could say that. In 2004, less than 20 percent said that any repairs had been done at all. And there’s even evidence of improvements in HR: A higher rate of schools reported having completed their teacher hiring on time.

Besides the minutiae, principals were asked to rate the “overall systemic support” this summer on a 1-to-5 scale. The 137 principals surveyed rated the support 3.8; DC VOICE also broke out the votes of 18 principals who had participated in the Ready Schools Project since it began four years ago; those principals rated their support from DCPS an average of 4.0.

The news isn’t an unalloyed victory for the Rhee administration, though. Rates of professional development among principals and the proportion of new teachers receiving mentoring both declined considerably compared to last year. Principals complained about procurement and technology. And at least some of the gains, Landberg says, can be attributed to policies instituted under Janey. But, she says, there were big gains in “the two R’s: resources and responsiveness.”

“To the extent that [the improvements] are environment-driven,” Landberg says, “you have to give credit to Michelle Rhee.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

But there’s the question of just how sustainable Rhee’s style is. So far she’s been a devoted follower of Fenty’s Church of the BlackBerry, having boasted to the Post of sending some 12,000 e-mails in fewer than four months. But is it possible to keep that going for years to come? Or will she burn out and just be another name added to the list?

Rhee says she’s in it for the long haul; eight years, she hopes—“two Fenty terms.”

So does she see herself sending 50,000 e-mails in 2015? “Gosh no, not if I’m gonna do my job. We need systems that solve problems automatically. But right now, for where the system is, we are having to solve these problems one person at a time.”

Asked why, after numerous rounds of failed central-office reforms, anything should be different this time around, Rhee says, “because I’m a different kind of leader. I’m not interested in or worried about what my next superintendency will be. This is a one-shot deal for me. When you have to protect your reputation…people are more hesitant to move in a bold way. That is not an issue for me at all. I have no political aspirations at all. I have no problem not being liked, frankly.”