Wednesday, November 11, 2009

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray was met with thunderous applause before a group of more than 150 Ward 3 political activists when he announced recently that he is considering challenging Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in next year’s Democratic primary.

“It is seriously on my radar screen,” Mr. Gray said at the Oct. 29 Ward 3 Democratic Committee meeting. “I probably get the question anywhere from 15 [to] 25 times a day. We are involved in evaluating the probability, and we are getting lots of feedback. We will see, and that’s the best answer I can give. But I appreciate the response from this audience.”

Mr. Gray spoke at the meeting after an eight-hour council hearing in which D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee sought to explain her decision to fire nearly 300 teachers in early October. He told the Ward 3 crowd that the firings may have been illegal.

“I have been on the council for four years, nine months and 27 days, and I have never had an experience in my life there as I had today,” Mr. Gray said.

He criticized Mrs. Rhee for making a “unilateral decision” to fire more teachers than necessary instead of adhering to the budget approved by the council. That budget called for a 50 percent reduction in summer school expenses. Mrs. Rhee has defended the decision by saying she did not agree with the council’s decision to make the summer school reduction.

Mr. Gray indicated the firings could pose problems for the city.

“The council adopted the budget,” he said. “It was signed by the mayor, and now it’s gone to Congress. There has been no reprogramming or reallocation of funds, and, in the converse, if [D.C. Public Schools] has not moved or reprogrammed the funds, DCPS basically riffed twice as many teachers as the budget pressure would have required. So, in my mind, if they moved the money without approval of the council, that was illegal. If they riffed at a level higher than mandated by the budget pressure, then that, too, is illegal. It may be a donnybrook coming down.”

Although the chancellor acknowledged that riffing teachers was not in the best interest of the schools, Mrs. Rhee, who spoke separately at the meeting, defended her actions.

“We knew because of budget pressure that we would have to do a [reduction in force],” she said. “Change never comes easy. We have to continue to fight to make the hard decisions that make adults uncomfortable but that we know are the right decisions for the children. We have to make the hard calls even though they may kick up some dirt.”

She also said D.C. politicians have lacked the will in the past to make such hard decisions “to avoid controversy and conflict,” and she cited that as the reason for the poor state of D.C. public education. “We have to reverse the tide.”

Although Mrs. Rhee spoke glowingly of her support for Mr. Fenty, several activists questioned whether he had become a liability for her and if she would be willing to serve a different mayor.

“I have never in my life met another politician who is so unequivocal in his support of education reform,” she said. “Most superintendents across the country would like to do the things that we are doing, but they don’t have the political cover or the political capital to do it. As far as I am concerned, I back the mayor 100 percent.”

Although she defended her decision to fire teachers, Mrs. Rhee also said she had recently hired a “communications expert” to help publicize the progress she is making as chancellor. “I feel this is one of the main weakness areas,” she said. “We have not been able to craft a communications plan that gets out the good news of what is happening in DCPS. As a result of this vacuum - the lack of a proactive communications plan - information available to the public is dictated by the media.”

In response to a question about what it would take to reduce the “toxic environment” created by the recent controversy over the teacher firings, Mr. Gray stressed that Mrs. Rhee must do a better job of communicating with the council.

“Communication by DCPS with the council is woeful,” Mr. Gray said. “How could we go three months from when the council approved the budget to learn that DCPS planned to change the budget?

“When the council approved legislation for the mayoral takeover of the schools, the council did not relinquish the role we have to ensure education reform is done well. Unfortunately, it appears there is some resentment of the council from DCPS for doing our job. There has to be some recognition and acceptance of the role that the legislative branch plays.”

He also said the responses provided at the hearing earlier in the day “do not help” to improve the level of trust in DCPS. “It starts with communication, mutual respect and greater transparency.”

Thomas M. Smith is chairman of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee.

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