City on a Hill: Radical Rhee-form

March 13, 2008

The purge of nearly 100 employees from the District of Columbia Public Schools’ central office shows that Chancellor Michelle Rhee is developing a habit of coupling good instincts with god-awful implementation. Her focus on rehabilitating the dysfunctional central office is much needed: DCPS’ administrative hub has devolved into a bloated bureaucracy incapable of providing students, teachers and principals with the resources they need.

But speculation about unfair and unsympathetic treatment of fired employees has raised questions about the manner in which Rhee is pursuing this reform. Without a clear plan for improving the central office, these firings seem like little more than a poorly-executed quick fix.

At Rhee’s urging, the Council passed a personnel act in January that reclassified non-union central office employees as serving “at-will” – meaning that Rhee could fire them at any time. Last Friday, she followed through, dismissing 98 at-will employees.

The at-will classification makes the performance evaluation process little more than a formality. Rhee would have been able to fire inefficient employees without reclassifying them as at-will; she just would have had to deal with the pesky matter of due process. According to DCPS spokesperson Mafara Hobson, an employee can be dismissed “regardless of what [their] evaluation was,” which leaves the door open to charges of capriciousness or prejudice.

“Clearly, the firings send a message to all school system employees that their job security may not be very important to the District,” Washington Teachers Union President George Parker said.

Rhee’s unwillingness to release details about how the decisions were made and how performance evaluations of job performance were conducted compounds the problem. Given her take-no-prisoners, consult-no-Councilmember approach, Councilmembers and the community at large consider the fact that she didn’t alert the Council of firings until after the fact and her unresponsiveness to their requests for more information as par for the course.

“I think that her failure to share information with the council follows the way she’s been treating them in the past,” Victoria Leonard-Chambers, spokesperson for Councilmember Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), said. “It’s just the way she operates and it’s the way [Mayor Adrian] Fenty operates.”

With allegations of unfair treatment abounding, some clarification and forthrightness from the Chancellor are in order. More troubling still is that Rhee has not explained her vision for the central office. Staff purges are not enough unless they are coupled with systemic improvements.

“At-will status and talking about the quality of employees is an easy escape without talking about whether the District is providing the needed resources,” Parker said.

As an at-will employee of sorts herself—serving at the will the Mayor—Rhee needs to be more open about her plans for reforming DCPS before her secrecy seriously erodes her popularity. Otherwise, Rhee risks becoming another one of the many reformers of the past decade who came in with big plans and left before achieving anything substantive.

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