Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Should DC Schools Chancellor Rhee Hire Friends or Put Work Out to Bid?

November 15, 2007 3 min read

In October, Brenda Belton, director of charter schools in the DC Public Schools infamous central office, plead guilty to four counts of theft and tax evasion. Among other transgressions, Belton admitted in court that she steered $446,000 in no-bid school training contracts to friends and received kickbacks for her efforts.

Washington Post staff writers Theola Labbé and V. Dion Haynes report that DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is considering contracts with nonprofit Charter Management Organizations (CMO) for schools in or approaching restructuring status.

According to (DCPS spokesperson Mafara) Hobson, Rhee told the parents and teachers she met with Monday that three nonprofits potentially could run some D.C. schools: St. Hope, a charter operator in Sacramento; Green Dot, which operates 12 charter schools in the Los Angeles area; and Philadelphia-based Mastery Charter Schools.

Rhee has a personal connection with St. Hope. She recruited teachers for St. Hope in her former position as chief executive and president of the nonprofit New Teacher Project. She also was a board member of St. Hope for about a year until she was appointed chancellor, according to a St. Hope official.

At her confirmation hearing before the D.C. Council in June, former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who serves as president and chief executive of St. Hope, flew from California to testify on her behalf.

Charter schools needed access to training. Some DC schools may well require the services of outside contractors to get on track towards Adequate Yearly Performance. In both cases, the right way to do this is for the school district to put the work out to bid and look for the best value (results at a price). There is no reason to believe that Belton’s friends were uniquely qualified to provide training, or that Rhee’s nonprofit CMO’s are uniquely qualified to turn around schools - or especially likely. And if Belton was paid on the back end, some are going to wonder if a new school for St. Hope isn’t the Chancellor’s way of repaying Kevin Johnson. Both are forms of corruption.

Again, we come to a question of the Chancellor’s judgment.

• The rationale for giving Rhee the power to hire and terminate central office employees at will is the dysfunctionality evidenced by Belton, and the urgent need to get modern management processes in place. Doesn’t even the appearance of hiring her own friends send the wrong signal to staff – that all this turmoil in the central office is not about improvement, but control?

• Imagine that Rhee has the right to hire and fire central office employees at will. Just how eager will procurement staff be to scrutinize a proposed DCPS-St Hope contract, let alone bring issues to the Chancellor’s attention?

• Where does this leave the school system when the Chancellor departs? With the cynical lesson that might makes right. If you are in control, hiring friends is just fine.

If we expect to improve school districts, we have to move away from the image of a Superintendent or Chancellor as the man or woman on a white horse. Michelle Rhee is no silver bullet, although that’s precisely the implication of giving her virtually unlimited power to hire and fire government staff and pick and chose her own school contractors.

We have to start moving towards the development of institutions that manage school portfolios based on analysis. That starts with procurement of the products and services expected to create high performing schools. No superintendent “knows” so much about this that they should be allowed to hire outside school managers because it seems like a good idea at the time. If it’s such a good idea, that will become clear in the competition for the work. If it’s not, the taxpayers and kids will be spared some pain.

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