Thursday, August 30, 2007

Michelle Rhee's Potential "TNT" Issue

Several years ago, I came to the belief that teachers' unions were teh biggest criminal in the public education arean. I was wrong--it is central bureaucracies--often union employees themselves.

Don't get me wrong, I still think that teachers' unions are still a major obstacle to making our schools better, but the biggest problem is incompetence protected by civil service rules and union contracts for government workers that creates the largest problem. Now, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is gearing up for the biggest fight of her short tenure--reforming and restructuring the DC schools central office. Rhee is seeking authority, either on her own or through legislative permission to begin firing central office employees.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is preparing plans to fire up to several hundred employees over the coming year, part of a major restructuring of the school system's central office aimed at streamlining operations, District government sources said.

As the initial piece of her strategy, Rhee has begun drafting legislation that would ask the D.C. Council to suspend personnel laws so that the chancellor would have the authority to terminate employees without having to reassign them to other jobs. Rhee also has been meeting with council members to lay the groundwork for their political support, members said.

The chancellor's actions are aimed at taking on the intractable central bureaucracy of the 50,000-student system, blamed for scuttling generations of reforms, said council members who have met with Rhee. During her informal chats with parents, community meetings and a two-day teacher training event last week, Rhee has vowed to create a central administration that is more receptive and responsive when dealing with parents, teachers and principals.

In past years, for example, the central office has allowed thousands of school facility work orders to languish, failed to deliver paychecks to teachers on time and had trouble supplying principals with supplies and equipment.

Rhee is exploring whether she has the legal authority to fire employees without council action. But she is aiming, if necessary, to present a formal legislative proposal to the council by the time members return from summer recess Sept. 15, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are being formulated. Rhee is said to have the full backing of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who fired Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and replaced him with Rhee in June.

Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said Rhee explained during a recent meeting with him that she wants to bring in new upper-level managers and downsize the central administration by as much as 30 to 40 percent.

The central office, as defined by Rhee and her deputies, has 700 to 900 employees, although the exact number has been difficult for the chancellor to pin down, the government sources said.

"It's not rocket science to know the central office is disorganized. Everyone knows that," Brown said. "The question is, to what extent is it disorganized, and what is the solution? Clearly, I need to see more specifics."

Another council member who has met with Rhee declined to speak for attribution because the conversation was private. But this person called the potential firings a "TNT issue" that could be met with skepticism by members whose constituents would stand to lose their jobs.
Central office workers outlast almost everyone involved in education, from elected officials and appointed superintendents to most teachers and principals, a central office bureaucrat is like the petrified forest, resist to all forms of change and so calcified as to be monolithic. But if Rhee wants to shake up the business operations side of the DC schools, by far the most inept in the Capitol area, she will need to begin swinging a mighty axe. I have suggested a 50 percent reduction in the work force before, but even a 30 percent cut in staff will go a long way to making sure people get the message.

But the end of the excerpt above illustrates the problem in DC. The central bureaucracy is practically a protected feifdom, with political patronage at stake, the DC Council will reluctant to pass the legislation Rhee is authoring. But here Rhee and her own patron, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) have a significant political edge. There are three possible scenarios, two of which are wins for Fenty and Rhee and losses for the Council. If the DC Council thwarts Rhee's their ability to make the necessary changes, Fenty and Rhee can point straight to the Council as the obstacle to school reform--a perfect out for the mayor on an issue high on DC residents' list of concerns. But if the Council approves the legislation and Rhee and Fenty succeed, the power of the Council in education matters is likewise diminished. Neither scenario is good for the Council. The only way the Council can win is to grant Rhee the authority she seeks and hope she fails.

No matter what, the Council almost certainly has to pass the legislation, even over the objection of the union representing the central office employees.

Rhee's mission to reform the manner in which the DC schools conduct their business operations, that is facility maintenance, purchasing, HR and payroll operations, logistics and transportation, translates directly to dollars for teh system, dollars that can be save or reallocated into the classroom. Either way though, Rhee is looking at tackling a major problem and it will be no small battle. If she wins though, DC kids will ultimately win.

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