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Native Intelligence
Mayor, council are hurting schools
(Published April 7, 2003)


NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED: In an effort to increase local control over education decisions, D.C. Public Schools officials this year shifted the task of hiring substitute teachers from the central administration office to local schools. The shift also was an effort to comply with city council complaints that the central office was a bloated bureaucracy that needed to be cut.

Last fall, school principals were given a list of certified substitutes and told to do the hiring themselves - as if principals have the time to operate a temp agency.

Recently, a few parents at Randle Highlands Elementary School complained that their children have been without a teacher for the past two months. The parents charged that their children were being warehoused and not receiving instruction because their teacher had a heart attack early in the year.

The parents' beef was that 21 second graders were shifted into other classes, and some were fourth and sixth grade classrooms. According to the parents, the kids spent most of their school day "just sitting and killing time" rather than having a structured learning environment. They claimed the principal told them there was no money to hire substitute teachers.

Upon further investigation I found that not all of the parents' complaints were true, but enough to indicate that making principals hire substitute teachers is a lousy idea. Tony Jones, the principal at Randle Highlands, said the parents' complaints were a little exaggerated mostly out of frustration, which he understood.

Jones claims there were some substitute teachers who taught the class, and there were lesson plans followed by the other teachers whose class size increased when they accommodated the 21 second graders.

Jones says he set aside $80,000 for substitute teachers this year but "it is impossible to find anyone willing to substitute for the long haul." He complains that the list from central administration is, in many instances, outdated and he said the way it is now designed, potential substitutes have to take their paperwork to each individual school if they want to work.

How efficient is that?

A PROMISE IS A PROMISE UNLESS MAYOR WILLIAMS MAKES IT: Last year Mayor Anthony A. Williams promised D.C. Board of Education member Tommy Wells, who oversees special education, that every dollar saved in the special education area could be reinvested in special education. In previous years, Wells said, every time there was an effort to save special education funds, the money was taken away and returned to the city's general fund.

Last year, almost $13 million went unspent in special education funding - and guess what? Wells was told recently by Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi that since the school system saved almost $13 million in special education funds last year, they obviously don't need it. Now Gandhi wants the school system to find another $13 million in budget cuts before the end of this fiscal year on June 30. In the next few weeks, the school board will decide where those cuts will be made.

YOU CAN'T BE EXPECTED TO SERVE TWO MASTERS: In the last few weeks, the chief financial officer for the public school system, Robert Morales, gave the school board some bad news. There were roughly 600 more people on the payroll than there is money budgeted for. It is mostly the result of a structural deficit that has plagued the system for decades. The school system had antiquated computer systems that failed to keep track of how many people were on the payroll and where they worked.

Morales was close to bringing the school system into the 21st century. But the constant complaining, finger-pointing and wringing of hands at the city council's offices became the last straw. Robert Morales couldn't take it anymore. He quit.

Morales is the sixth CFO the school system has had since 2001, and certainly the most well-liked and qualified person to serve in the position. But after a diagnosis of kidney stones on top of diabetes and now a skyrocketing blood pressure rate that makes him a candidate for a major heart attack, Morales has had enough. He leaves April 30.

The newly designed computer system begins operating this month as well, but Morales won't be around to see its success. Instead, the talented CFO becomes yet another victim of an administration and city council that continues to kill the messenger rather than taking some of the heat for the mess.

Sources say Morales was also put in an untenable situation because he had two bosses. This is another example of fine print in the school referendum that was approved by the voters in the summer of 2000. The school system's CFO is not just responsible to the school system; his real boss is the mayor. You can't answer to two masters and succeed at your job, which is what Morales discovered too late.

"IF YOU CAN'T BEAT THEM, JOIN THEM" DEPARTMENT: School board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz has been both praised and vilified by warring factions over what has been described as a flip-flop on her position on school vouchers. Her recent op-ed piece piece in The Washington Post that supported the Bush administration's $75 million experimental school voucher plan for the District's children dumfounded education activists, who after three weeks still can't understand the turnabout. Sources say Cafritz really threw in the towel when she saw Mayor Williams and Education Committee chairman Kevin Chavous were unwilling to fight the Bush administration on the voucher plan.

Apparently Cafritz believes she was abandoned by Chavous, who is still writing an advocacy book on charter schools, and Williams, who can't focus on anything other than homeland security, in efforts to provide a united front and some heavy lobbying to squash the proposal. Cafrtiz has been quoted lately as saying she is supporting the voucher plan because "we are going to get vouchers."

The Republican controlled Congress sees the District as an appealing laboratory to promote school vouchers, because their constituents back home oppose the idea.

While Cafrtiz's flip-flop may be demoralizing to voucher opponents, how many battles can you engage in when you have an ongoing budget crisis while other elected officials give only lip service and refuse to put in the time to stop the District from becoming a social experiment?

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator