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May 2, 2010

Fatal Flaws

Dear Flawless Correspondents:

It’s almost time to write my “told you so” column, crowing about how I saw Michelle Rhee’s fatal flaw years ago, before anyone else wrote about how she would self-destruct as Chancellor. Almost time, but not yet. Her fatal flaw, or at least one of them, is one she shares with Mayor Fenty — an inability to work with anyone else, to collaborate, to consult. Instead, she and he both insist that everyone else must follow them and their plans, and do so at full speed without taking the time to think, to consider, to read, or to question the wisdom of those plans. That flaw was evident again at last Friday’s council hearing into the DC Public Schools budget, when both Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and Rhee testified.

Gandhi, who epitomizes collaboration and consultation, and who is gentlemanly to a fault, said that he could not certify that the contract Rhee negotiated with the Washington Teachers Union was fiscally sound because of the restrictions on the grant agreements with the foundations funding it. But he said that he was working with the Chancellor, and that he was sure she would identify savings within the DCPS budget to make up the shortfall. Skeptical councilmembers pressed him on where those savings would come from, on what they were, and Gandhi kept saying that Rhee was working with him and that he was sure they were making progress. Finally, he was asked directly whether Rhee had presented any budget savings to him at all to that date, and he had to admit she hadn’t. Then Councilmember David Catania, aggressively pursuing the mayor’s agenda of shifting all blame to the CFO’s office for “miscommunication” between Rhee and the CFO, kept asking the current Chief Financial Officer for DCPS, George Dines, if he had any written communication proving that he pressed Rhee for more access to DCPS decisions and decisionmakers. Catania got increasingly accusatory until Dines pulled from his files an exchange of E-mails in which he had asked to attend the chancellor’s senior staff meetings and was rebuffed and told he would be invited when he was wanted. Gandhi and his assistants testified for four hours without having been sworn in; when Rhee and her subordinates stepped up to testify, they were immediately sworn it. That says volumes about who the councilmembers trust, and whom they don’t. The other remarkable revelation last week was that the city was now attempting to renegotiate its agreements with the private foundations that have agreed to finance some of the costs of the teachers’ contracts. The city’s negotiator is not Chancellor Rhee or any of her staffers; not the Deputy Mayor for Education, Victor Reinoso, who does not seem to have any other job duties these days; not even Mayor Fenty, who claims that education is his top job priority but does nothing to prove it other than to show up for photo opportunities for construction projects. No, said the city’s contumacious Attorney General, Peter Nickles, he claimed he is doing the negotiations, because of course school contracts fit within his job responsibilities.

Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss, who likes and admires Chancellor Michelle Rhee, has written a remarkable column that explains why Rhee is more of a problem than a solution for DC’s schools, For everyone who is sick and tired of reading my tirades over the past three years about why she would turn out this way, take the time to read the lament of a disappointed supporter. “So what have we got? A powerhouse of a superintendent who is bent on doing whatever she thinks she has to do to achieve her goals. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to understand — still — that reforms only work when the people who have to implement them are on board. She can make bold pronouncements and she can start all kinds of new programs. But if she keeps damaging her own credibility, it is not likely that she will be in the city for the very long term to see that the reforms are put in place.” And Robert McCartney breaks his long streak of uncritical praise of Rhee with a column today acknowledging a few of her faults,; and says, “Writing this is a comedown for me.”

But it’s not yet time for me to crow. That will have to wait a month or two. Because Rhee has promoted the contract as her signature achievement, she has made it into a referendum on her. That has shifted the balance of power, and for the first time given power to teachers over her. If they don’t approve of the contract, if they vote against it, that will be a vote of no confidence in her and make it almost certain that she will find an excuse to leave office. And there’s not as much to vote for in the contract as press accounts make it seem. Teachers’ jobs are still at risk, at the whim of an arbitrary and vengeful administration; their raises are not as guaranteed and secure as they have been described; those raises have been purchased at the cost of the jobs of their fellow teachers who were fired last October; and the much-touted “performance bonuses” are illusory, will-o’-the-wisp promises. Moreover, when the teachers vote between the current president of their local, George Parker, and his opponent in the election, Nathan Saunders, who said all along that Rhee couldn’t be trusted, it will be a second teacher referendum on Rhee. The third referendum will come over a longer time period, when the economy improves and there are better job options both for current DCPS teachers and for the inexperienced teachers whom Rhee prefers (and who are taking the jobs now because they can’t get work in their preferred professions). Who will want to work for Michelle Rhee at DCPS then?

Gary Imhoff


Clueless Metro Solution: Yell at Customers
Ted Gest,

With Metro poised for its biggest fare increase ever, has anyone here had any successful interactions with Metro on important day to day issues? I haven’t. A few examples: 1) rush hour going north on the Red Line at Gallery Place-Chinatown is out of control. With no signs telling people that trains don’t stop at the Chinatown entrance point, it’s a mad rush by hordes of pushing and shoving people to get on and off trains when they stop way up the rack (a change after last year’s big fatal accident). It’s dangerous. The Post wrote about this; Metro’s solution was to send employees to yell, “Move down,” at customers. It doesn’t work. I fear an injury or fatal accident.

2) Due to an unusual schedule one day this week, I tried to take a scheduled 1:40 p.m. E-6 bus from Friendship Heights. Other passengers and I patiently waited starting at 1:30, but no bus ever came. I was advised to call “next bus,” but there was no sign indicating the stop number (necessary to use the system.) The next bus was due in forty minutes. Another driver told me: “That 1:40 bus never runs because it’s supposed to be driven by someone from the [adjoining] #30 routes who isn’t given time to switch routes. You should complain to Metro.” Having forty minutes to kill, I did, talking to two different Metro people who were clueless. One said she would get back to me. I doubt she ever will.

3) Metro doesn’t post signs at its many short-term escalator outages, which are important for people with disabilities, indicating when they are likely to be repaired. Typically these involve only one of several levels, stranding people who have trouble walking. I wrote Metro about this and got a nonsensical response that they wouldn’t post signs because people might put graffiti on them. I called Metro and was called back a few days later and was told “we discussed this at a meeting.” End of report. No word since (this was a year ago). That’s enough for now, but I doubt that a fare increase will solve problems like this. Anyone have any better, similar, or worse experiences?


The Perils of Privately Financed School Reform
Allan G. Assarsson,

Despite all the accounting errors that preceded Friday’s council hearing with CFO Gandhi and Chancellor Rhee, the apparent rush of many councilmembers to find the money required to backup uncertain private funding and thrust the WTU labor agreement through the approval process is even more disturbing. This insertion of private dollars into the DCPS budget calculations has inherent problems that need to be studied closely. The conditions placed by these foundations for their continued financial support not only impact our schools, but directly inject themselves into our city’s electoral process that will focus on education issues more than any other election in recent times.

These foundations may not be citizens of the District of Columbia, but they still may have an effective vote in our election. The qualified nature of their support creates the public perception that voting against Mayor Fenty may cost the city 64.5 million dollars in revenue that could help our city’s children. How many votes is this worth? This is a question you can be sure that both Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray are asking. Secondly, by accepting conditional money, we also inviting upon ourselves the unacceptable dilemma of having to choose between educational priorities that we determine are in the best interests of our children and the divergent priorities of private foundations. Furthermore, we should not confuse this type of financial support with privately funded research that a University might accept with strings attached. They are completely different. Until now, the four foundations (Broad, Arnold, Walton, and Robertson) have been funding only public charter school alternatives, and have not supported labor unions that would represent teachers or administrators. They are strong advocates for the privatization of education at every level, from pre-K through high school and beyond. It is also clear that Chancellor Rhee has qualities that these foundations have found very attractive. It should not be hard to imagine why their monies are conditional on maintaining a DCPS leadership that may be more than just sympathetic to their cause.

There are serious conflicts that may arise from accepting provisional private funding for our public institutions. The potential impact on the democratic process and independent control of DCPS policy needs to be at the forefront of our discussion of the DCPS budget and WTU labor agreement. The WTU agreement is routinely described as “groundbreaking,” clearly a very positive description that assumes none of the dangers that such private funding portends. Mayor Fenty and Schools Chancellor Rhee have unprecedented powers to affect changes in our schools without interference. But the school budget and the types of funding are within the purview of the city council. The council must exercise responsible oversight to protect the interests of both our schools and democratic process by placing their own conditions on the acceptance and application of this private financial support.


What Do DC Teachers And Billion-Dollar Foundations Have in Common?
Candi Peterson and Efavorite,

As most of you probably already have heard by now , Dr. Natwar Gandhi, Chief Financial Officer, officially confirmed on April 30 at a DC city council hearing that he would not certify a Washington Teachers’ Union Tentative Agreement (TA) due to the conditions imposed by private foundations. Another reason that the TA cannot be certified at this time is the fact DC Government does not have the fiscal resources to fund the entire teacher compensation package.

Efavorite, frequent guest writer on The Washington Teacher blog, highlights that DC school officials have proposed to lay off DC teachers in 2011 as a means to narrow the funding gap and gain approval of teachers’ retro pay and future raises by CFO Natwar Gandhi. This raises the question of whether, if the WTU Tentative Agreement ever gets ratified by WTU members, teachers will still be around to collect their pay raises, or will they be among those on the unemployment line? In a timely piece, Efavorite offers us food for thought. “Bored with pushing lowly teachers around, Rhee has taken on billion-dollar foundations, setting them up to be the saviors of school reform, then watching as District CFO Gandhi predictably rejects them for having unacceptable strings attached to their generous gifts. Even better, this happened on the same day that a letter to the editor defending the foundations, written by their spokesperson Cate Swinburn, appeared in the Washington Post. For Chancellor Rhee, the thrill of RIFing 266 teachers based on a bogus budget deficit was probably nothing compared to publicly humiliating billion-dollar foundations that had just pledged millions to her reform effort. Now she’s saying, ‘the District is attempting to persuade the private funders — the Broad, Arnold, Walton, and Robertson foundations — to modify their requirements.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if they do it. Once Rhee has people dancing to her tune, it seems hard to stop. In the same article, Gandhi said one of the ways that school officials had proposed ‘to narrow the contract funding gap’ was ‘. . . expediting a planned reduction in the number of teachers to save $7.6 million in 2011. . . .’ Got that, teachers? If the contract ever comes to a vote and passes, it could take a RIF to fund your back pay and pay raises, if you ever see them, before getting RIFd. It’s all laid out in front of you now. It’s a matter of deciding if you’re going to dance to that tune. You’ll be in the company of billionaires, if you do.”


Alexander Sets the Record Straight at Mayoral Forum
Valencia Mohammed

In a mayoral forum in Ward 8 sponsored by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8E and the Ward Eight Council Against Domestic Violence on April 29, residents got their first opportunity to watch the chair buckle under pressure. After Council Chair Vincent Gray took claim for negotiating the development of the DC/USA Target, a 500,000 sq. ft. retail complex in Columbia Heights, the record was set straight by mayoral candidate, Leo Alexander.

Mr. Alexander rebutted Mr. Gray’s assertion of negotiating the project by informing the audience that the chair was not elected to the council when the negotiations were underway. How does Mr. Alexander know this? He sat on the board of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH) that was solely responsible for negotiating the project more than ten years ago. Caught off guard and attempting to save face, the chair remarked, “Well, I signed for the parking lot.”

No sitting council chair has ever been elected as mayor.


Congress Doesn’t Protect DC’s Rights — It Denies Them
Bill Mosley,

In the last issue, Gary Imhoff wrote that Congress, in attempting to interfere in DC’s gun laws, is merely trying to “forbid the DC city government from denying constitutional rights to its citizens.” In fact, congressional interference in DC’s laws has nothing to do with ensuring “rights” and everything to do with exploiting its colonial rule over the captive District. Members of Congress who want to curry favor with the National Rifle Association are powerless to interfere with the laws in their own states, so they use their legislative authority over DC to make us a guinea pig and whipping boy. Numerous jurisdictions around the country have restrictive gun laws, but because they fall under state law they are off-limits to congressional meddling. The proper forum for ensuring that rights under the Constitution are upheld is the federal courts — the path taken in the Heller lawsuit — not congressional legislation. Those concerned about our “rights” should support our right to enact and enforce our own laws, just as the rest of the country can do — rights that can be assured only when we attain statehood.


Guns, Gays, and Voting
Michael Bindner,

Am I the only one who finds it odd that our publisher insists on the rights of gun owners against both the council and a past city referendum that supported stricter gun restrictions — yet disregarded the rights of gays to marry in favor having such a referendum? Gary, are you for the rights of the individuals or the rights of the community, or does it depend on your opinion of them?

[In reply to Bill Mosley: Whose responsibility is it to protect constitutional rights? The courts do not have the sole or even the leading role in guaranteeing, respecting, and protecting the rights of Americans. Officials in all branches of government, including the Congress, and at all levels of government — federal, state, and local — are bound to ensure that our rights under the constitution are upheld.

[In reply to Michael Binder: I find gun rights explicitly enumerated in the Second Amendment of the constitution. The right of individuals to be armed for self-protection has been recognized by the great majority of societies since cavemen carried clubs. The rare governments that have disarmed their people have been tyrannies that feared their people. I differ from our local city officials in that I do not believe in a theory of states rights that gives states or cities the right to nullify constitutional rights.

[On the other hand, search as I may, I do not find the right to same-sex marriage enumerated in the constitution, and I do not find any serious assertion of such a right in any society prior to about twenty years ago. Must any novel and newly invented assertion that something is a basic human right be accepted automatically and without question? — Gary Imhoff]



Dupont Circle Citizens Association Annual Meeting, May 3
Robin Diener,

The Dupont Circle Citizens Association will hold its annual meeting at St. Thomas’ Church, 1772 Church Street, NW (at the corner of Church and 18th Streets), on Monday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. After the business meeting, please join us for a reception and meet the new board members. The Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) was founded in 1922 “to promote and protect the interests of the residents of the neighborhood.” We still do that. Our area is a lively mix of homes, embassies, restaurants, shops, and galleries — and one of the city’s most architecturally significant neighborhoods. These qualities are no accident. The unparalleled quality of living the neighborhood provides is the result of countless volunteer activities carried out by generations of Dupont Circle Citizens Association members. DCCA is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting interests of the residents of our neighborhoods.


National Building Museum Events, May 8
Johanna Weber,

May 8, 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Construction Watch Tour: Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Library. Designed by the architecture firm Davis Brody Bond Aedas, the Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Library will house eighty thousand books, DVDs, and CDs and thirty-two public access computers. Peter D. Cook, AIA, with Davis Brody Bond Aedas leads a tour of this 22,000 square-foot building, scheduled for completion in June. $25, for members only. Prepaid registration required. Register for events at

May 8, 1:00-3:00 p.m., Design Apprenticeship Program Final Presentation. Come see the new student-designed projects for the United Planning Organization’s youth education classrooms. Teen participants lead presentations on their design process and how they envision their projects in use in the classroom. Free; registration not required. Refreshments will be served. At the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square Metro station.


A Reception Celebrating Women Diplomats, May 13
Pat Bitondo,

More than forty women now represent their countries as either Ambassador (twenty-six women) or as Chief or Deputy Chief of Mission to the United States. Join the Woman’s National Democratic Club members and guests in honoring their individual accomplishments and celebrating the growing role of women in diplomacy at a WNDC reception on Thursday, May 13. The honorees will discuss the achievements and challenges facing women. Reserve your place early for what promises to be an informative and festive evening as we honor those who are able to join us. Early acceptances include the representatives of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Estonia, Guatemala, India, Portugal, and Morocco.

Woman’s National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Avenue, NW. Wine reception with hors d’oeuvres at 6:30 p.m., program at 7:15 p.m., with continued reception afterwards. Members, $40; nonmembers, $45. Register at


Join FOCUS for a Workshop on How to Start a Charter School, May 13
Bianca Neri,

Want more educational options? Start a public charter school. Come to a charter school startup seminar on Thursday, May 13, 6:00 p.m.-8:00 .m., at the law offices of Arnold & Porter, 555 12th Street, NW. Parents, teachers, and community organizations have started great public charter schools. You can, too. $20.00 per person

Registration is required. Register online by visiting or by E-mailing For more information about FOCUS and the District’s Public Charter Schools, visit


Bennetta Bullock Washington Scholarship Application, May 14
Beverley Wheeler,

The DC State Board of Education (DCSBOE) announces that the application period for the Bennetta Bullock Washington Scholarship remains open. To date the office has received only three completed application packets. The scholarship is for five hundred dollars, and is available to a DC public high school graduate with a minimum grade point average of 2.0, demonstrated leadership ability, good citizenship, and evidence of school and community volunteer work activities.

Application packets must be postmarked by May 14 to be considered. An application packet must include an official transcript including school rank; SAT scores; three letters of recommendation from a principal, teacher, and counselor; a personal essay (two-page limit); verification of acceptance to an accredited institution; and a family financial statement (W-2 or SAR).

The State Board selection committee is eagerly awaiting the dynamic students that participate in the Bennetta Bullock Washington Scholarship. The selection committee will begin the selection process immediately following the close of this period. All application packets that are postmarked by May 14 will be included. We look forward to the many exciting and deserving students that we see each year. Please mail all application packets to DC State Board of Education, 441 4th Street, NW, Suite 723N, Washington, DC 20001.


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