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The sudden discovery that the discredited administration of schools chief Gen. Julius Becton is $62 million over budget has conspiracy buffs shifting their attention from the lone-gunman theory of the Kennedy assassination to the lone-bureaucrat explanation of the current D.C. school debacle.
The Internet soon may be buzzing with analysis of how one well-placed bureaucrat, angry over the D.C. control board’s November 1996 schools coup that brought Becton to power, could bring down the arrogant general.
Some may dismiss the theory as wishful thinking on the part of Becton loyalists convinced that their man was done in by devious forces. Others may see it as further proof that the city’s well-entrenched bureaucracy can outlast any reformers Congress imposes on D.C.
Red-faced government gatekeepers, including highly touted Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams, downplay as conspiratorial nonsense the idea that a lone bureaucrat secretly changed a few numbers last year so that the 1998 school budget contained enough money to pay the District’s 8,000-plus school employees for only 10 months, instead of 12.
Williams says accepting this theory would require him to believe in the far-fetched notion that the D.C. bureaucracy is capable of a “vast, orchestrated conspiracy.” The man who once angered D.C. employees by declaring that a third of them were incapable of doing their jobs and another third needed remedial training won’t admit he may have been sucker-punched by the immovable bureaucracy he is battling to reform.
Although many D.C. employees still haven’t learned office fundamentalslike answering the phone and coming back from lunch breakthey’re municipal wizards when it comes to obstructing reform.
Williams would rather believe that the $28 million shortfall in the current school budget resulted from simple accounting errors made during last year’s budget process. “I think a lot of our systems are so dysfunctional that it would be impossible to coordinate a conspiracy,” says Williams. “You can’t orchestrate an orchestra unless you’ve got an orchestra. I would like to prefer that it is a matter of some miscalculations.”
Yes, you heard him right: A deliberate manipulation of the budget numbers to embarrass Becton would require a conspiracy on the part of the bumbling D.C. bureaucracy. But a mistake producing the same result could innocently slip past the number crunchers undetected.
The CFO himself may want to sign up for a few of those remedial classes.
The incident has slowed Williams’ ascension to a seat alongside Zeus in the pantheon of municipal management gods. Congress created the CFO position three years ago to wipe out just this sort of budgetary nonsense. Since then, Williams has been installing his internal management controls throughout District agencies to reassure members of Congress that the city’s elected leaders are no longer acting like Julia Child and cooking the numbers.
“Whether it was done on purpose or by accident, the internal controls failed in any case,” says one D.C. official involved in trying to sort out the debris of Becton’s 17-month reign over public schools. “At some point, we’ll need to answer the question [of] how it happened. All it would take is one disgruntled bureaucrat.”
Just ask Alvin Frost, the principled bureaucrat who single-handedly paralyzed the city’s computer system 12 years ago. Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. had ordered Frost to award city contracts on the basis of cronyism rather than competency. Frost responded by changing the computer system’s password, locking the mayor and his deputies out of the system.
Fallout from the $62 million crisis in this year’s school budget, which will eat up at least $30 million of the $348 million surplus city officials were salivating over just a few weeks ago, is landing on everyone from Williams to control board members and mayoral candidates. And the fiasco has taught the city’s appointocracy how it feels to muck up the District government.
Control board member Joyce Ladner, who had been put in charge of overseeing Becton and school reforms, stomped out of a stormy Sunday budget session April 5 and declared to no one in particular, “I will not accept a second term.” Her declaration startled a group of reporters nearby, since none had inquired as to her future plans, nor seemed to care.
Ladner left the meeting after being peppered with questions from D.C. councilmembers and other city officials as to why she didn’t know about the $62 million budget overrun in time to warn them. The control board member, clearly irritated by the finger-pointing, decided she couldn’t take it any longer, so she publicly put an end to efforts to persuade her to stay another term. Her departure will dismantle the Ladner-Constance Newman-Stephen Harlan coalition that has ruled the board during its three-year stint and forced autocratic chairman Andrew Brimmer to take early retirement.
The control board deserves a failing grade for giving Becton such a free hand to run the public schools following the November 1996 coup. Shortly after Becton took control, then-D.C. Personnel Director Larry A. King offered the new schools chief the technology and staff to conduct an accurate count of school employees. Getting a handle on how many people the school system employs is no easier than tallying the potholes that Hizzoner claims to have filled.
But Becton, in true military fashion, sent King packing, stating that he and his administration were perfectly capable of conducting the count without the help of other D.C. agencies. Becton also forced Williams to yank the schools’ respected CFO, Abdusalam Omer, because the general and Omer didn’t see eye to eye.
“[Becton] seemed to know what he was doing, and he wanted his space,” says an aide to Williams. “In retrospect, we shouldn’t have given it to him. A year and a half later, the schools are not significantly better than when [former school superintendent] Franklin Smith left.”
Parents know that all too well, and the Becton failures have forced many more to conclude that private education remains their only option.
Last year, Becton told Congress he knew precisely how many employees and students the school system had. But last week, city officials again were considering ways to come up with accurate counts of both.
Arlene Ackerman, the school system’s academic officer who is stepping into Becton’s job, suggested asking principals to provide a student count for each school. But councilmembers warned that principals notoriously inflate their counts since their budgets are based on the number of students enrolled.
LL still likes the idea we proposed a few years back: Mandate all employees to report to RFK Stadium on payday and make them sign out before they can pick up their checks.
The last line of defense against school system mismanagement is mayoral contender Kevin Chavous, chair of the council’s education committee. Chavous’ flank, though, is about as tough as the Union line at the Battle of Bull Run, and his field leadership is as effective as that of Union Gen. George McClellan, who was fired by President Abraham Lincoln for his posture of continual retreat. Chavous, the only councilmember invited to participate in a private April 8 session involving control board members, Becton, and Williams’ staff, skipped the meeting to devise ways to wipe out the projected $62 million school deficit.
The Ward 7 councilmember said afterward that he had not been informed of the meeting until that morning, and that it conflicted with his scheduled education committee meeting, during which his panel subpoenaed the school system’s budget documents to conduct its own investigation. In another attempt to get out in front of the education issue, Chavous this week appeared with Ackerman at a news conference to propose ways of making school cafeteria food more palatable to students.
Since he has been stripped of most of his powers, Barry can avoid any blame on this issue and join the finger-pointers, which Hizzoner has done with relish. Last week, he blasted Becton for deserting his post and going AWOL in the midst of battle. Stung by public criticism from Ladner, Becton reversed his earlier decision to stay until the end of the school year and announced he would quit April 30, immediately upon his return from two weeks of paid vacation.
“At least I know when it’s time to step down,” Becton fired back at Barry.
For that single achievement, Becton gets a passing grade.
•After trying to keep their mayoral bids from public view for the past seven months, three D.C. councilmembers finally have summoned enough courage to actually schedule campaign kickoffs with full-blown speeches outlining their visions for the citysupposing they have them. The beginning of the campaign season is being forced in part by the May 15 start of the petition period to collect the minimum 3,500 signatures each candidate will need to qualify for the Sept. 15 Democratic primary ballot.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil plan to launch their campaigns on Saturday, May 16, with rallies to get their petition drives in high gear. Evans will announce at the refurbished Kennedy playground, 7th and P Streets NW, in his ward, and then walk through a section of each of the city’s eight wards. Brazil is staying close to his home base in Ward 6 and will orchestrate his announcement and petition rally at Hine Jr. High School on Capitol Hill.
Chavous intends to get a two-week head start with a May 2 announcement that his campaign staff hope will be broadcast live on radio station WOL (1450 AM). Chavous will also be staying home, announcing at Ward 7’s East of the River Shopping Center at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE.
Chavous has spent the past several weeksand Evans and Brazil the past several monthscrisscrossing the city to meet in small groups with activists and donors. All three have assiduously striven to keep their activities from public and press scrutiny for fear of saying anything that might anger or alienate Barry and his supporters as the mayor struggles with his own decision about this year’s race.
The trio of mayoral wannabes is banking on Barry’s stepping down this year, and Brazil and Chavous, in particular, are hoping to pick up chunks of Hizzoner’s support. All three also want to avoid antagonizing Barry into working against their candidacies even though he may not be on the ballot.
The Democratic contenders have essentially skipped the first phase of this campaign, during which they had an opportunity to define themselves as strong, principled politicians willing to take the tough stands voters are hungering for. Now the candidates appear willing to devote the next phase of the campaign to the nuts and bolts of getting their petitions signedhardly an activity that will inspire many voters.
No wonder Candidate X remains the leading contender this year, even though such a creature may not exist.
•When Sheridan-Kalorama activist and government watchdog Marie Drissel hosted an awards ceremony in her home in February to honor
whistle-blowing officers in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), organizers insisted that top police officials stay away. At least one honoree requested that his name not be put on his award for fear of departmental retaliation.
Former Interim Chief Sonya Proctor recently touted the event in MPD’s 1999 budget documents as the kind of activity the department sponsors to honor its officers.
“Not only did the department not give any money, they have never thanked any of these officers,” says a flabbergasted Drissel. “In fact, they’ve all been harassed.”
The theft of someone else’s good idea apparently is not a crime within MPD’s upper ranks.
•Outgoing Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines, the Clinton administration’s point man on its D.C. rescue effort, bombed as the keynote speaker at this year’s annual banquet of the Federation of Citizen Associations.
When Raines strode to the podium and began talking about the let’s-make-a-deal mentality overriding development battles in the city, his sizable audience for the April 9 event thought it was in for an evening of anecdotes about D.C. officials’ insensitivity to community concerns. Instead, Raines aimed his salvos at community groups, which he claimed often wage long and costly battles for such petty benefits as free movie passes to the local theaters.
“It was like, ‘Do you know where you are?’” noted one participant. “It was a total put-down of his audience.”CP
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