Somebody has to intervene fast to figure out who is going to be paid what, and how, in D.C. schools before the budgeting process becomes a comic farce. Some would say it already is.
Is there a $34 million surplus in the D.C. public schools budget?
Is there not?
Who said there is?
Who says there isn't?
Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose signature initiative, school reform, under the chancellor he appointed, Michelle Rhee, seems to be lurching from one controversy to another, should bring together the parties involved to sort this all out--fast. His reelection bid later this year could be affected.
Rhee seems to be in a slugfest with Fenty's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, over how much money there is in the budget to pay teachers.
Earlier this week I thought things couldn't get much more ridiculous when Rhee landed in hot water with teachers--again--just when it seemed like she had climbed out.
Rhee had reached a historic contract agreement with teachers, who have been angry with her since she came three years ago with a broom and a take-no-prisoners attitude about reform.
Things escalated last year when she laid off 266 teachers because, she said, there was a budget deficit. Teachers protested but a judge sided with Rhee.
When the contract--which required compromise on both sides--was announced, it seemed as if she was starting on a fresh relationship with teachers. Then, earlier this week, Rhee told the council that, in fact, there was not a deficit after all but a surplus, and that's how teacher salary increases would be paid.
Au contraire, Gandhi said in a letter Thursday to Rhee that essentially says she doesn't know what she's talking about. He was "incredulous," he wrote, that she told the council there was a surplus because, he said, there isn't.
Gandhi, being the city's chief financial expert, seems to have more credibility on his side in this argument. But because school and city officials are not exactly transparent about where money comes and goes, it's hard to know exactly what is going on.
It seems that nobody has an authoritative handle on the budget, and that raises big questions about how Rhee sets her priorities and funds local schools.
If, in fact, Rhee has been operating on faulty assumptions about how much money she has to work with and how much teachers are paid, we don't really know if schools have been getting what they should be receiving.
Budgeting issues have plagued Rhee since she became chancellor in 2007. That was the year the Fenty administration paid $4 million to consultants to find savings and re-prioritize spending in the school system.
In less than a year, Rhee was seeking more money for schools, raising questions among education advocates about how she was spending funds. Advocates complained that budget details were kept secret and that Rhee sometimes made conflicting statements about how money would be spent.
And so, here we are again, with Rhee in the middle of a budget controversy that threatens the pact she reached with the teachers.
I don't know anybody who wants Rhee to fail in her effort to improve D.C. schools, but if she can't keep herself out of this kind of trouble, it's hard to see how she can be really successful.
If Fenty wants to keep his reform effort alive, he has to find a way to get this fixed, fast.
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