- The Washington Times - Friday, October 30, 2009

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray on Thursday accused schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee of breaking the law when she fired staff members to close a budget gap rather than cutting summer school funding, as the council directed.

“Maybe we ought to just disband this council,” an exasperated Mr. Gray said. “Why did we spend hours working on a budget … only for you to second-guess us?”

Ms. Rhee denied any wrongdoing, saying she was advised by D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and D.C. Public Schools General Counsel Jim Sandman that she had the authority to shift budget line items.

She added that she thought a cut to summer school - the plan approved by the council - would impede students’ academic progress.

“My understanding is that I do have the authority as the agency head to make the decisions about moving budget [funds] from one place to another,” Ms. Rhee said. “I decided that as unfortunate as the cut was, I’d rather see that cut happen to adults than to children.”

The hearing, which lasted more than eight hours, was the third time the council has convened to gather facts about the dismissal of 388 school workers this month. The Washington Teachers Union has challenged the firings in court.

Ms. Rhee said the cuts were made to help close a projected $40 million budget shortfall, $20 million of which she attributed to cuts made by the council.

Also under scrutiny was the school system’s chief financial officer, Noah Wepman, who shocked council members by testifying that he did not alert his boss, city CFO Natwar M. Gandhi, about projected budget shortfalls that would have kept the schools budget from being certified.

Mr. Wepman acknowledged he should have told Mr. Gandhi in July when the school system became aware of projected overspending, but he said he did not because the school system was considering options, including cutting personnel, that would address the problem.

“We had to predict options that would occur in the future that would get us [under budget],” Mr. Wepman said. “We knew based on the actions we planned to take that it would be balanced.”

Mr. Gray said he would look into Mr. Wepman’s actions, saying there appeared to be “no question” the law was broken.

The revelation further incensed several members of the council who for weeks have questioned the legitimacy of the layoffs, which occurred after the school system hired more than 900 teachers before the school year began.

Council members and education advocates have speculated that the personnel cuts were an intended consequence of overhiring that would allow the chancellor to make targeted firings of teachers and school employees.

Ms. Rhee said the high number of hirings, almost 300 more than in recent years, was the result of a budget that put more money in individual schools than in previous years.

Eliciting further outrage from council members was the revelation that Mr. Wepman provided Ms. Rhee with about 10 options to cut costs that did not include cutting teachers.

Ms. Rhee defended her choice as the best one for students.

“We can’t shy away from those decisions because we don’t want to hear the noise,” she said.

Ms. Rhee reminded the council that she was approved by its members to lead the school system.

Council member Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, called for Mr. Wepman to be fired amid scathing criticism from other members. Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, echoed the call.

Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, said the process has severely diminished workers’ trust in the school system.

“I’ve never seen this much fear in the work force,” Mr. Barry said.

A hearing in D.C. Superior Court on a complaint filed by the teachers union seeking to reinstate the fired employees is scheduled for Thursday - three days after the layoffs are scheduled to take effect.

A judge on Wednesday denied a request for a temporary restraining order that would keep the school employees on the payroll.

The fired employees are currently on administrative leave with pay and benefits.

• David C. Lipscomb can be reached at .

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