Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee


A week after a new D.C. Public Schools teacher contract proposal was rolled out with great fanfare, fiscal revelations aired today leave its ultimate implementation very much in doubt.

Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Washington Teachers’ Union head George Parker appeared at a D.C. Council administrative meeting earlier today to brief councilmembers on the agreement. Rhee was grilled on the deal’s financing details and revealed that retroactive raises are being funded by a $34 million DCPS surplus.

With that revelation, “everyone’s ears perked up,” says a person at the meeting. That’s because less than eight months ago, the school system was pleading poverty and ordered layoffs for 266 teachers to close a $40M budget gap.

The surplus, Rhee told the room, was the result of a miscalculation by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Specifically, she said expense projections had been based on an average teacher salary of $81,000 when the actual figure is nearly $15,000 less.

Councilmembers were aghast at the disclosure—-an admission that at least some of the layoffs, which tore the local body politic asunder, were unnecessary. D.C. Council Chairman (and mayoral candidate) Vincent C. Gray was “stunned and astounded,” a spokesperson says. Rhee said she had “recently” learned of the miscalculation, says a meeting attendee.

The political ramifications are heavy.

Bearing the brunt of the disclosure, at least immediately, is union president Parker—-who will have to decide whether to seek reinstatement for the fired teachers with the surplus, or to press forward with a contract. In either case, his hard-line opponents within the union have a new avenue of attack; he stands for re-election next month. Parker claimed today that he had no knowledge of the surplus prior to the meeting.

Also in the hot seat: CFO Natwar M. Gandhi, who certified the erroneous figures last summer. Rhee named her former agency CFO Noah Wepman as the culprit, meeting sources say, but Wepman was supposed to be accountable to Gandhi—-not Rhee.

In the wake of the fall layoffs, tough questions were raised about Wepman’s independence from the chancellor, and he was forced out after a poor showing at a council hearing. Questions about Gandhi’s stewardship of school finances now reappear. Note also that Rhee’s fingering of Gandhi represents a shift of political blame to an entity ostensibly independent of the mayor; Gandhi, of course, has survived much worse.

Other folks with egg on their face: Katherine Bradley, who is spending $100,000 in her foundation’s money, to hire former White House communications chief Anita Dunn to handle, among other things, the rollout of the teacher contract. And this is what they get?

The big questions going forward: Assuming Parker doesn’t withdraw from the contract agreement and that Gandhi certifies the deal, will teachers vote for big raises knowing it comes at the expense of wrongfully fired ex-colleagues? And if they do vote to ratify, will a feisty group of D.C. councilmembers, led by a mayoral candidate, abide by their wishes and vote to approve the contract in this election year?

LL was not in the room; Examiner’s Leah Fabel was there, among other reporters.

Fabel quotes Gray’s reaction: “If I were one of the fired teachers, I would be ready to put my hands around someone’s throat and squeeze till there was no air left….At the end of the day, some people’s pay raises [would be] funded with someone else’s job.”

UPDATE, 6:05 P.M.: A Rhee spokesperson challenges LL’s reporting that she identified Wepman as the source of the bad information; LL has asked in what context Rhee might have uttered his name.

Gandhi’s office has issued a statement: “All of the facts, figures and information concerning the finances of the teachers contract will be released when the CFO’s analysis of the contract is made public.”

And a statement from the WTU:

To put it simply, this is unacceptable.

We once again request that DCPS reinstate the teachers who were laid off. If the teachers are not reinstated, the WTU requests a new hearing on the RIF, at which time the newly available budget information will be provided to the court.

We also are requesting that the D.C. city council take legislative action to ensure greater transparency in the budget process. In particular, we would like to see more rigorous guidelines for determining what does—and does not—constitute a crisis that allows for unregulated actions like October’s RIF.

The WTU calls for a close review of the unilateral powers currently accorded the chancellor and the mayor, to determine if more must be done to ensure that there is greater accountability, both to the council and to the people of the District of Columbia.

Nothing can give back to the teachers, the students and the community what was lost as a result of either malevolence or mismanagement of the budget. We must, however, take all necessary steps to ensure that it does not happen again.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery