It’s no secret that Marion Berry has seen some scandalous activity in his day. So when the embattled councilmember describes anything as “the worst mess involving the city government that I’ve seen in my 31 years in city government,” it’s time to take notice.
Barry wasn’t far off base in his comments about the revelation by District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee that erroneous budget calculations brought about the firing of 266 DCPS teachers in the fall. The revelations are even more damaging because Rhee rolled out a new contract proposal with the Washington Teachers Union that was three years in the making and provided for a more than 20 percent pay increase for teachers through 2012. The current situation gives the impression that dramatic teacher raises are being funded with the windfall from wrongly fired colleagues.
As mayoral candidate and current D.C. Council Chair Vincent Grey explained to the Washington Examiner, “If I were one of the fired teachers, I would be ready to put my hands around someone’s throat … At the end of the day, some people’s pay raises [would be] funded with someone else’s job.”
For DCPS to move from an estimated $40 million shortfall to a $35 million surplus in only a few months due to an accounting error is a staggering mistake. Even more disconcerting was the offhand and dismissive manner in which Rhee revealed this huge miscalculation. Yet, after working for three years to unveil a contract that will give teachers significant raises, funded in large part by $65 million of private funding—a major part of Rhee’s reforms to retain and attract effective teachers—it would be a terrible waste for the Washington Teachers Union to back away from the agreement at this late stage.
Rhee pinned the blame for this embarrassing mistake on D.C.’s Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and former DCPS Chief Financial Officer Noah Wepman. If these individuals are to blame—and there is some speculation surrounding Gandhi’s silence through Wednesday—a serious investigation should be launched into how no one caught such a serious mistake.
Ultimately, it would be tragic for this mistake to derail the multiyear process that led to a groundbreaking contract with significant benefits for DCPS teachers. It is clear that someone must take a serious look at the cause of DCPS financial troubles to ensure such a costly accounting error is never repeated.