Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Jim Ford bikes up 18th Street NW, his longish brown hair flapping in an unusually warm January breeze. He disembarks onto the sidewalk in jeans and a faded blue henley he’s wearing inside-out.

The goateed and baggy-eyed Ford seems more like a teenager on Christmas break than a powerful veteran of the D.C. Council staff and, as of last week, a 47-year-old job-hunter. Councilmember Kevin Chavous recently assumed control of the Committee on Education and Libraries, where Ford has worked since 1985. Chavous isn’t rehiring Ford.

“I think my car got stolen last night,” Ford says nonchalantly, explaining the bike. “But I don’t care that much. I hardly drive the thing.” He laughs as if cars are a hilarious joke.

But Ford’s hippie demeanor belies the unusual measure of influence he gained as a council staffer and, since 1990, as staff director of the committee overseeing schools and libraries. Because of his tenacity, accounting expertise, and investigative ability, Ford often had what most D.C. government employees lack: hard information and the experience to analyze it.

Ford’s access to data—and the waning mental capacities of his titular boss, aging committee chairwoman Hilda Mason—have made him the Cardinal Richelieu of the council. It was Ford, for example, who authored the legislation enabling charter schools to open in the District. And Ford exercised the committee’s oversight responsibilities with little sympathy for teachers and administrators defending the status quo.

However, Ford’s powers often seemed to stop at the council’s door. Despite his constant—some say obsessive—efforts to publicize and fix problems in D.C. schools, by most measures the schools are, in his own words, “worse in 1997 than when I started.”

For instance, D.C. students still perform badly on national tests and graduate at abysmal rates, even when compared with kids in comparably disadvantaged communities. In response, parents have withdrawn their children in droves (enrollment is less than half what it was 30 years ago), and yet the administrative ranks have actually grown during the same period, doubling between 1979 and 1991.

Today, unelected outsiders are leading a sweeping effort to rehabilitate the school system. The control board has focused intently on schools and has appointed a slew of top-notch reformers, most notably retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, to upend the school administration. Ironically, just as Ford’s reform ideas, copious studies, and financial audits will finally be put to use, he’s leaving.

Conflict swirled around Ford during his years on the council staff. Many parents and reform advocates saw him as a valuable crusader. “Without Jim Ford,” says Abdusalam Omer, “the community would not have the understanding they have of the schools.” Omer is the budget hawk sent by independent Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams to balance (and in some cases find) the schools’ books.

Others, especially school administrators and some teachers, say he was a self-serving media hound who took advantage of his boss’s frailty. (Mason is widely said to have trouble with her memory. Ford now says on the record that he believes she has Alzheimer’s disease.) Enemies and friends alike agree that no one knows more about the schools’ budget than Ford.

Appropriately, conflict also surrounds Ford’s departure: Chavous, the Ward 7 Democrat, says Ford expressed no interest in keeping his job. Ford, on the other hand, says he would have accepted an offer from Chavous. Ford and his supporters are surprised Chavous will not keep Ford for an extended transitional period. (Ford’s last day is Jan. 17.)

“I feel like I’ve given something to this city,” says Ford, his droopy eyes drooping even more. “Now it’s like the door has been opened and I’m being shoved out.”

It’s a bitter end to nearly two decades: “I will admit to you that I feel like I have failed,” he says. But after years of poor elected leadership and dismal administration of the schools, maybe Ford didn’t fail. Maybe the city failed him.

Ford began and ended his career at the public schools as an outsider ferreting around on the inside. An auditor and accountant by trade, he first examined the school system in 1978, when a parents group asked him to investigate the handling of a major federal grant. What he discovered stunned him.

“It was so clear there was phony budgeting, and double budgeting, and a slush fund of cash,” he says, still with a hint of amazement after all these years. Ford testified before the school board, and one board member, Ward 2 representative Alaire Rieffel, eventually hired him. (Sources say Ford and Rieffel were romantically involved when she hired him. He denies it, adding, “People hear these rumors that I’ve been involved with most of the women in the D.C. government over the years.”)

Five years later, Ford and reform-minded board members were sparring with the mayor, the council, and each other over the school budget. Ford had become a close ally of board member Calvin Lockridge, who was part of a group that criticized the mayor for cutting the school budget. For mostly political reasons, Ford’s staff position was eliminated, and he left in 1983.

After consulting for two years, however, he returned to the schools. While vacationing in Vermont in 1985, he received a call from Mason, who needed help investigating the University of the District of Columbia. He agreed to work for her, thinking he’d serve on the council’s education committee for two or three months. He stayed 12 years.

At first, he enjoyed working for Mason, who still burned with a spark of her civil rights-era fire. But Ford says her mental capacities began declining, and by the early ’90s she sometimes appeared confused and forgetful. “[Former council Chairman] John Wilson and I were going to go to her and ask her to step down in 1993 and leave gracefully. John, of course, committed suicide before that happened,” Ford says.

Though Ford says he worked for Mason reluctantly after that, he clearly took advantage of her condition to run the show himself. “I think Hilda Mason gave him a lot of authority, whether it was knowingly so or just by default,” says a former school board staffer who, like most staff people—though Ford almost never does—asks to remain anonymous. “He acted like the elected official, you know, in terms of making decisions and getting his name in the paper and in terms of running the committee. I guess she thought that was OK, or she just didn’t know what was going on.”

Mason says she is competent and healthy. When asked if she had any problems with her memory, she says, “As of right now, I don’t have any.”

Whatever the case, Ford exerted more power than other staffers. He scheduled hearings, requested information from school administrators, and spoon-fed Mason questions to recite, syllable by syllable, from the dais. He also stridently pushed reforms, urging the school system to fire unneeded administrators and encouraging the council to pass legislation endorsing charter schools and other educational experiments.

“Sometimes it got to the point that you would wonder who is the councilmember and who is the staffer,” says former Superintendent Franklin Smith, echoing the sentiments of many school observers.

As his tenure on the committee wore on, Ford’s views on education grew more conservative and clashed with Mason’s. One school veteran remembers a committee meeting in which Mason introduced the legislation Ford had authored to create charter schools. As the councilmembers discussed the legislation, Mason realized she opposed it. “She couldn’t go along with it, so they couldn’t vote it out of committee,” the veteran says. “That kind of stuff happened all the time.”

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

A late riser, Ford came to work whenever he wanted—rarely before 11 a.m.—and stayed until the middle of the night. He often looked unkempt. He became a key source for journalists (Ford had briefly worked as an investigative reporter for a Ralph Nader group). He argued more and more with Charles Mason, the councilmember’s husband, and with the councilmember herself. Fellow council staffers say he often seemed to be grandstanding for attention from reporters, councilmembers, and more recently, the control board.

“There were times when he had the interests of children at heart, but there were also times when he seemed to be playing his cards to get in good standing with the forces that seemed to be in power,” agrees Smith, who was forced to leave office last year by the control board.

Ford angered Mason occasionally, but she couldn’t realistically fire him, because he ran her committee. For his part, Ford felt trapped. He always thought he could beat the bureaucracy, raise test scores, order spending priorities, fire ineffective employees, and keep the schools from deteriorating further. “I did think I could help change things for the better, through whatever skill, even by force of will,” he says.

It was a recipe for frustration. Though still a liberal, Ford’s views on school policy turned toward solutions favored by many Republicans, like government-funded vouchers for poor students to attend private schools. And he sometimes sounds like an assembly-line right-winger: “A lot of programs established by LBJ and JFK—programs intended to uplift people and empower people—one can argue that they’ve created a culture of dependency instead,” he says. Ford believes “the work ethic got lost” in D.C.’s “social experiment” with big government.

In 1995, Ford’s frustration—with Mason, with the school administration, with D.C. politics—grew so acute that he refused to come to work for two weeks. But he came back, he says, because he felt he had made a long-term commitment to making schools work better.

Today, he often regrets his decision to join Mason in 1985. Personally, the two have a strained relationship: She tepidly calls her 12-year life-saver “a good employee,” and he omits her name from his three-page résumé. Ford also looks at the school system he tried to police for so many years and sees chaos. “My advice to [control board member] Joyce Ladner was, ‘You can’t fix it. You have to start all over again.’ And she has indicated to me that she now believes that’s true.”

In spite of his flirtation with conservative policies, Ford has always been a peculiarly American kind of left-winger. Born to “not very wealthy” parents in small-town Iowa in 1949 and educated in Catholic schools, he retains a Middle American brand of values: work hard, stay within your budget, don’t depend on the government.

When the Vietnam War forced him to make a wrenching decision—obey his draft notice or flee the country—Ford chose to enlist, but the Army might have been happier without him. Because he had a degree in accounting, Ford was assigned to the U.S. Army Audit Agency. For two years, he gave his commanders headaches. “I started sniffing into things that they wanted to be kept quiet—just ‘the way things work,’ you know…like monies disappearing from clubs, and connections of drugs to high-ranking officers,” Ford recalls.

He says he looked “sort of like John Lennon” at the time. “I was a crusader. I was the person people came to when people thought they were being screwed. The irony was that I actually could find out if they were—I was an extremely good auditor.”

His fraught relationship with the Army has left him with some kooky conspiracy theories—he believes higher-ups tried to plant drugs in his quarters and plotted to murder him. (“I can’t substantiate a lot of the stuff I thought was going on,” he admits.) But Ford took a useful and unlikely lesson from his Army experience: Even a drafted soldier can investigate senior officers who are mishandling taxpayer money.

He brought the same attitude to the District. In fact, his investigative lust only deepened as he has watched school administrators and the elected school board squander millions of dollars a year on bureaucrats’ salaries and wasteful expenses—and then beg for more money “for the children.”

Ford first came to Washington in the mid-’70s in search of a publisher for a fictionalized account of his Army days. He never found one, but his uncle, then a Washington Post editor, introduced him to well-placed friends who helped him find employment. Eventually, his accounting ability and his politics dovetailed, and Ford filled an empty niche—helping leftist organizations tidy their accounts.

He worked for a salad bar of liberal groups (one was called Halt All Legal Tyranny). Most prominently, he helped the anti-nuke group SANE/FREEZE audit its books and keep from going broke. “It became clear that someone had to be an adult in these organizations,” he says. “There was no dynamic of fiscal responsibility.”

The schools, he says, were just the same. Indeed, even today D.C. schools are only beginning to recover. (Omer cherishes tiny victories, like getting the fax machine in the finance department repaired—after two years.) But these struggles raise a basic question about his performance in the schools: If he was so passionate an advocate for reform, why didn’t he reform anything?

The most obvious answer is that he had no real power to effect change. “He’s a staff person. And with the staff person there are limits,” says former school board and council member Betty Ann Kane. If Ford often blustered for reporters, he did so because elected officials on the school board and the council wouldn’t make change a reality.

But it was the school system itself that really stymied him. Over the years, Ford’s own work documented an inward-looking schools culture whose main purpose became its own sustenance. Teachers followed the path of least resistance into the administrative ranks. Once ensconced in the Presidential Building—which everyone knew meant higher pay and much less work—administrators fought mainly to keep their jobs.

Ford once showed Omer how it was possible, for instance, for the most experienced teachers to earn less than midlevel administrators. Critics who took aim at the system were seen as meddlers trying to tear down an African-American-run system. “The attitude was never, ‘I don’t know the answer,’ which would have been bad enough, but, ‘How dare you ask?’” laments Ford.

The insider culture made firing employees unthinkable. And when school budgeting techniques and accounting methods became obsolete, no one updated them. (When Omer arrived last summer, for instance, he found payment vouchers—there are thousands each year—filed by number, making it impossible to search for the names of companies that were owed money.)

Ford’s only recourse was to try to embarrass school administrators into changing by exposing shoddy management and budgeting practices in committee hearings. But Ford’s tool was a blunt one: Mason. He compensated by devising ever more specific questions for her to ask.

“Some of the questions were not needed—they were a repeat of the same question over and over again, asked in different ways, like he was trying to trick you,” Smith says.

Unable to reform the system from the inside, Ford shared the information he acquired with reporters and with the advocacy group Parents United. With his help, Parents United became a major force in school politics. “He got the information that we needed,” says Parents United Executive Director Delabian Rice-Thurston. “Who needs to FOIA everything?”

Ford and his allies on the outside ultimately couldn’t beat the system. For example, Ford complained for years that the schools should spend more money to repair fire-code violations. He provided Parents United and reporters with information showing that repair money was spent for other purposes. To no avail: In a well-publicized fiasco in August, a judge had to order schools closed until they could complete hurried renovations.

Though Ford was depressed to see the control board assume control of most city functions, he is heartened that its hand-picked schools chief is already shaking things up. “The fact is, a lot of those ideas from the control board, and that [new schools chief Becton] is looking into, are things taken from reports I have written over the years,” Ford says. For instance, the board’s oft-quoted December schools report identified no major problem that Ford had not already explored in education committee documents. Additionally, Ford urged for years that some administrators be fired and the remaining ones retrained, which is now happening. Computer databases that classify the same information differently are finally being reconciled.

It’s understandable that Chavous would want his own staffer in Ford’s position. Chavous, whose mayoral hopes are now better-known than his accomplishments, doesn’t want a firebrand on staff who’s at least as bright—and more outspoken—than he is.

Less understandable is the shoddy treatment accorded to Ford. Chavous has asked him to write an exit report, but he won’t keep Ford as a transition adviser. Moreover, the council secretary has informed Ford he won’t receive a dime of severance pay due a technical glitch (Ford wasn’t fired, and his councilmember didn’t lose an election).

Chavous may regret not using Ford’s expertise more extensively. Given Chavous’ reputation for lax work habits and the intricacies of the school budget—intricacies only Ford and a few others have mastered—he may be overmatched as he forays into school system oversight.

At the least, Chavous should recognize that Ford was spotlighting the schools’ troubles before Chavous even entered public life. “We need to have a fresh start,” Chavous says. Jim Ford has been saying that for years. CP