- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

District leaders' responses to the "hallelujah" departure of schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and to their own "bribing" of the U.S. Labor Department to hire the incompetent Valerie Holt explain why citizens declare those leaders disingenuous and democratic government not worth residents' time.

Officials portray Mrs. Ackerman's desertion as a massive loss, although they know she never fully grasped long-standing management issues, made marginal academic improvements and alienated thousands of parents. Miss Holt, they say, deserves her taxpayer-financed $130,000 soft landing at Labor, although it took her three months to produce the city's fiscal 1999 annual audit; prior to that she was a key implement in the District's brush with bankruptcy.

To mask these assaults on common sense, professional ethics and the public coffers, some have cited Miss Holt's 16-year service to the District, adding that she'll do a good job with the feds. Which is highly suspect given her track record in the city. Mrs. Ackerman's defenders say she has done wonders with a severely dysfunctional system. They say she is a victim of the District's polycentric governance, and a target of a mean West/East translate white/black battle. (But who's to blame when African-Americans don't lobby and advocate for improvements in their children's schools?) And, Mrs. Ackerman's supporters say, too, that D.C. Council members are guilty of micromanagement.

Micromanaging is born of her failure to manage. Consider the issue surrounding transportation for disabled children by a private contractor, Laidlaw Transit Inc. During this past year, the story has become a well-documented saga; children have waited hours, sometimes days for buses to arrive. In her defense, the superintendent will say she was only the contract officer for the Laidlaw deal. This linguistic game aside, it's clear Mrs. Ackerman couldn't manage one contract; Lord help us if she had more.

Accountability and control are the real reasons Mrs. Ackerman is San Francisco bound. In coming months, she would have received the power of procurement for which she lusted, her own separate budget year, and more money than any of her predecessors. In return, however, she would have been held more accountable, foiling the finger-pointing, blame game. Moreover, she was expected to accept a chief operating officer a demand of the mayor, who despite his sheepish statements to the contrary, knows Mrs. Ackerman is managerially challenged; the two have been haggling over who would get the final vote in the selection process.

Mrs. Ackerman also was a little concerned about the change in D.C. Board of Education governance, which would come just as her contract is ending, leaving her livelihood to unknown players in an arena where she isn't the favored bureaucrat. Finally, the allies she thought she had control board members proved temperamental when earlier this year they voted against her wishes to turn over Paul Junior High to a new charter school group; blind faith had opened its eyes. Mrs. Ackerman pondered how fast she could say, "Bye-bye."

While the congressionally created panel's loyalty disappointed Mrs. Ackerman it has yet to fail Miss Holt. With straight faces Mrs. Rivlin and her official apologist, Mayor Williams, say the woman who participated in the bankruptcy of the District a la Sharon Pratt Kelly and leader of the annual audit debacle deserves to be retained on the city payroll while she works in some nebulous position in the federal government for a year. Their decision adds new meaning to the term golden parachute. Miss Holt is the recipient of a platinum airplane. She flew without requisite talent into the post as chief financial officer, mucked up stuff so badly there, and now flies out to the federal government with the supreme recommendation of the former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve and the city's own fiscal wunderkind. It begs the question how safe is the District financially with these two in charge?

Mrs. Rivlin, the control board and Mr. Williams are fast creating the image of the District government as the Mecca for the incompetent. Consider how taxpayer dollars were passed out to other challenged directors, including David Watts, Cellerino Bernardino, Margaret Moore, Jearline Williams and the infamous Camille Cates Barnett the big kahuna who promised to right every management wrong but instead left a spectacular mess, while lining the pockets of a few friends. If anyone expected the control board and the "new accountability" mayor to orchestrate a better, more improved professional culture in the District government, then the Holt scam is solid, indisputable proof of our gullibility.

How in the world does anyone in her right mind justify providing severance pay to an employee who misled everyone about a critical annual audit, indirectly fueled the untimely departure of dozens of talented employees, failed to effect quarterly reconciliation of the city's bank account, and stood in the way a financial version of George Wallace as others tried to make progress?

Only in the District is professional misconduct and incompetence rewarded while taxpayers wince, and pretend they are not the marks in a long-running, sophisticated government fraud.

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