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Native Intelligence
'Tired' Chavous should step aside
(Published October 7, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

Early last month the relatively new chief financial officer for D.C. Public Schools, Robert Morales, made an unhappy discovery.

DCPS finally had the money to install a new computer system with software that offered the school system ammunition to identify fraud and waste. And so Morales, who came to DCPS with experience overseeing finances of other urban school systems, found $23 million of potentially questionable overpayments to employees and contractors.

It was bad news at a difficult time. Superintendent Paul L. Vance was anticipating he, and a united Board of Education, would once again be opposing a joint effort by the mayor and D.C. City Council to delete money from the school system's budget this fall. What they didn't know at the time was that the sheer size of the city's revenue shortfall had ballooned from $80 million to $323 million in a month.

Morales reported his bad news to the school system first, and then DCPS officials met with Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, chairman of the education committee, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams. While it was bad news, Morales reported he was making progress on identifying the structural problems that have plagued the system for years.

A few weeks later, with less than 24 hours notice, Chavous announced an emergency hearing before the education committee to discuss ways for the school system to cut even more money from its budget than agreed to under an ongoing austerity plan. In their testimony, school officials drew the line against any more cuts.

At this juncture, and with grand bravado, Kevin Chavous pulled out "The Big Lie." He slammed the school system for the $23 million overpayment. Though such accounting problems had been suggested for years, he said he was "shocked" by the discovery. In a sneeringly paternalistic "dressing down," Chavous inferred he had no previous knowledge of the problem. Councilman Jim Graham, who acknowledges regularly that he knows little about the District's public education issues, joined the Chavous bandwagon.

Once again, the school system was on the defensive, and Chavous appeared to be too uninformed to have done his job. This is not the first time Chavous has used the school system as the public "whipping boy" for his declining political fortunes. He repeatedly rants and raves, then drones on incessantly during committee hearings as though he were unveiling an innovative "ref-orm" campaign platform.

It is clearly time for Chavous to step aside. He has been chairman of the Commit-tee on Education, Recreation and Libraries since 1996. He gained the chairmanship after his lackluster tenure as chairman of the council's D.C. Self-Determination Committee. His mayoral aspirations have been quashed by Williams, though he has flirted more than once with the prospect of jumping into the council chairman's position. However, Chavous is known for playing it safe.

A number of people who work for pro-education groups say privately that Chavous is not an advocate for public education. They say he favors charter schools.

While it is no crime to support some charter schools - which also are funded as "public schools," though they are not controlled by DCPS officials - the education committee chairman must focus on the difficult problems facing the overall public education system. High on that list is the system's overwhelming special education needs.

But Chavous is obviously just tired. The committee needs some new blood.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator