D.C. council chairman doubts merit pay’s finances

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray fired the first salvo in a Washington schools debate with national implications on whether teachers should be rewarded for performance rather than seniority, expressing skepticism about a tentative contract negotiated by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers Union.

Mr. Gray, who is running for mayor, sent two letters demanding documents related to the contract’s finances — one sent to Ms. Rhee on Wednesday night, the other sent Thursday to Natwar Gandhi, director of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO).

The letter to Ms. Rhee, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, gives the chancellor a deadline of April 19 to provide the documents relating to the financing of the “merit-pay” component.

Ms. Rhee has made rewarding teachers according to merit a priority of her tenure since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty put her at the head of D.C. schools in June 2007.

In that letter, Mr. Gray specifically requested that the chancellor provide documentation of “private sources funds” regarding merit pay. The letter to Mr. Gandhi also demanded budget-related documents on the proposal.

“This groundbreaking contract treats teachers as true professionals, and we’re happy to provide Chairman Gray with the information he has requested,” Ms. Rhee told The Times.

Mr. Gray, who is opposing Mr. Fenty in the Democratic primary, is among several city officials who are expressing concern about the general direction of the overall spending plan and the schools’ plan in particular.

Some lawmakers have said the mayor fails to substantially curb spending and his plan relies on spending reserve funds.

Funding schools has been a contentious issue since the council handed control of the school system to the mayor in early 2007. The mayor controls the direction of the school system but the council holds the purse strings. Mr. Gray opened hearings Monday on the mayor’s fiscal 2011 budget plan.

The relationship heated up last fall, when Ms. Rhee said a $43.9 million budget gap meant she would have to fire 388 employees, including more than 200 teachers. The council was blamed for the shortfall.

But on Tuesday, school officials said they had discovered errors on their part. The OCFO had miscalculated items in a cost analysis, and the miscalculations led to the dismissal of 266 teachers. The $43.9 million deficit has been corrected and turned into a $34 million surplus.

Because of the miscalculations, Mr. Gray said he now is skeptical of Ms. Rhee’s “underlying assumptions and overall way to fund this agreement.”

“I am requesting — by April 19 — Copies of letters, memoranda or other documents given to the OCFO, DCPS, or any other part of the DC Executive with regard to the teacher contract negotiations by private organizations that have promised to provide funding in connection with that contract including, but not limited to amounts committed and conditions on which funding is contingent,” he said.

In announcing the agreement, school officials said the merit-pay program would be funded with $64.5 million in private donations and that committal letters from the donors, including the Broad Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundation, would be certified by the OCFO.

Mr. Gray’s letter to Mr. Gandhi says there are “many unsustainable approaches” in the mayor’s 2011 budget plan. Mr. Gray requested Mr. Gandhi relay documents and cost analyses of school salaries and benefits.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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