Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Are the Three R's, Again?

Is it Fred Hiatt's conceit that "The best offense is a weak defense?"

We shouldn't expect a school chancellor to understand arithmetic? Even when everybody who isn't vested in her agenda has been screaming for months, "Your numbers don't add up"?

Following her revelation of the best little deficit in D.C., the Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial, is putting up its best defense of Michelle Rhee. Maybe they should have slept on it?
Fact No. 1: Ms. Rhee does not control school finances.
Um... and the President doesn't control federal spending. Except he kinda does, because he's the chief executive, is involved in the budgeting process and has to actually sign off on the budget.

Seriously, she is the boss. And if somebody goes to the boss with a budget that requires serious blood-letting, it's part of her job to try to figure out how things went wrong. "Let's see... income's not down that much but, whoah, spending is way up. For teacher salaries. How did teacher compensation jump 15% in a year?" If she can't read a balance sheet, I'm sure there are many people in the administration who can - and, in fact, who are paid to do so, to audit for errors, and to make sure the numbers are correct. They truly all fell down on the job? What happened to Rhee's famous devotion to accountability and the firing of incompetent employees?

Moreover, with the former CFO fired, when it came time to slash the budget once again nobody was able to figure out how to use the real numbers? The "before" and "after" budget pictures were both created with the same erroneous, inflated salary data instead of the real thing?
Fact No. 2: Last August, Noah Wepman, the chief financial officer assigned to schools, told Ms. Rhee the schools faced a shortfall of $21 million. Ms. Rhee had no choice but to respond in some way; in September she opted for the layoffs rather than the cuts to summer school that some D.C. Council members preferred but which she believed would be more harmful to students.
Because laying off teachers doesn't harm students? They flourish in overcrowded classrooms, and when teachers are suddenly replaced or grades are merged? Let's be honest - Rhee picked the option that was most disruptive because it best advanced her agenda:
She made no secret at the time that in laying off teachers, she would try to get rid of those who were not effective -- as we would hope she would.
Right. And I'll accept that she did focus on getting rid of some of the worst teachers - although it is beyond question that she also eliminated the jobs of teachers who had good performance reviews. As long ago as October, there was a shadow over the layoffs:
But questions remain about the severity of the crisis Rhee has described, in light of the growth of the school budget. The $779.5 million spending plan for 2010 represents a net increase of $14.9 million over fiscal 2009, according to an analysis by Gray's office.

Critics suggest that Rhee has contrived the shortfall to pursue her long-term goal of replacing most of the city's teacher corps, especially veteran instructors -- a charge she denies. Last fall, she directed principals to notify teachers they regarded as underperforming that they faced dismissal at the end of the 2008-09 school year unless they improved. About 80 instructors were terminated. ...

In a Sept. 23 interview, a week after announcing the layoffs, Rhee said the budget crunch was legitimate but acknowledged that she intended to use it as an opportunity to continue removing under-performing teachers from the system.
And now we know that, in addition to being exaggerated by Rhee's hiring of 900 teachers over the summer, the budget crisis was not legitimate. The question becomes, what did Rhee know and when did she know it?
The layoffs were challenged in court; their legality was upheld. No one questioned their financial foundation.
The layoffs were challenged in court, yes. But in the very Washington Post article to which Hiatt's crew links it is stated,
A D.C. Superior Court judge on Tuesday upheld Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's decision to lay off 266 public school teachers and other educators to close a budget gap, flatly rejecting union arguments that she contrived financial problems to rid the system of older instructors.
So tell me again how "No one questioned [the layoffs'] financial foundation". The judge's ruling was predicated upon the reality of the deficit - "a reversal of the layoffs would only force Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to make other cuts." Except now we know it wouldn't have, or would have required only minor cuts.
Fact No. 3: In February and March, George Dines, who replaced Mr. Wepman as the chief financial officer's deputy for schools, provided Ms. Rhee with information that the system was spending less than forecast on teacher salaries this year, generating what appears to be a $34 million surplus.
In other words, Rhee knew about the budget reality not later than March, probably sooner. So why didn't we hear about it before now?
Whether this should have been obvious to the CFO before the September layoffs would be a useful question for the council to ask and for Mr. Gandhi to answer. It is clearly not a question that is properly posed to Ms. Rhee.
Why is the word "clearly" so often used when the speaker wants to beg the question. Why is it improper to ask Ms. Rhee what she knew and when she knew it? It would appear that she negotiated with the teachers unions throughout the entire time at issue with knowledge of what future budgets would have to look like - how is it that she "knew" that the money that was supposedly absent from the school budget would reappear next Fall to fund her the new contract? She's truly that bad with numbers?
Does the council want to move forward, affirming a contract that will promote teacher quality and morale? Or would it like to obfuscate the facts surrounding this latest development and try to score political points?
Act like mature adults, or act like Fred Hiatt's editorial board... tough choices indeed.
1. Writing that, I cringe at how strained the notion of "the three R's" is... Three words, each containing an "r" sound....


  1. Amen, Aaron. The Post editorial page is absurd. They want people held accountable, except Michelle Rhee. Anyone but her.

    The truth is, they need her to succeed so that their sister company, Kaplan, can sink its teeth deeper into school systems throughout the country. It's already the Washington Post Company's most profitable subsidiary. The editorial page fawning and Kaplan are not unrelated.

  2. It's not just that they don't want to hold her accountable - they don't want to hold her accountable even if this revelation causes the newly negotiated union contract to fail. I've given Rhee the benefit of the doubt that she's "doing it for the kids"; I've never had that feeling about the Post, and this type of "defense" pretty much tells you why.

    These shenanigans also take me back to my recurring point on the new contract. It may be the best thing since sliced bread, and perhaps works the necessary magic to bring about significant improvements in school and teacher quality while making it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers. Let's assume all of that. Past its fifth anniversary it remains unsustainable without substantial outside contribution.

    (That's assuming, of course, that all of the money promised by outside groups over the next five years actually materializes - I expect it will, as the foundations involved seem solid, but I didn't expect a massive global financial industry meltdown or that many "responsible" charities would be crippled out when their "investments" in Ponzi schemes were wiped out.)

    What about this "budget shortfall" fiasco should make me think that Rhee's administration is capable of dealing with that future? If I view it cynically - they concocted a shortfall so that they could fire teachers that would otherwise be untouchable - they may be looking forward to a shortfall five years from now as an opportunity to "clean house". But if this was an honest mistake - if they aren't competent to take payroll figures and plug them into a spreadsheet square marked "teacher payroll" - what faith should I have that they have a plan, or are capable of forming a plain, to sustain the spending required by the new contract once the private contributions have been spent?

    What makes Hiatt's crew cry crocodile tears is not that there was a budget error, but that the news came out before the new contract was finalized. It's hard to believe that this is the same paper that broke Watergate. These day's they probably would have held the story until Nixon finished his second term.


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