Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 01/27/10

As if reforming D.C. Public Schools wasn’t hard enough, along came Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s inflammatory quote in the monthly Fast Company magazine.

We’re sure you heard about it. She said the wrenching layoff of 266 teachers last October included some teachers who had sexually or physically abused students.

"Why wouldn’t we take these things into consideration?" Rhee told the magazine.

Once she had declared a budget crisis, Rhee could essentially fire anyone she wanted to fire. And she did.

But the abuse quote -- first disseminated locally by Loose Lips Daily on the Washington City Paper’s Web site -- stunned parents and others. They wondered how many abusive teachers were on the payroll. They wondered if any were working in the classroom before they were fired.

Meanwhile, the teachers union cried foul, saying Rhee had smeared all of the teachers with her loose talk.

Days went by and Rhee said nothing.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, still weighing a run for mayor, demanded that Rhee explain herself. He said he’d hold hearings if necessary.

Inexplicably, Rhee allowed the furor to last through the weekend, telling people privately that she didn’t mean to disparage all the teachers and that she didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. She said she had said something similar during an October D.C. Council hearing.

As any class of Public Relations 101 would tell you, it wasn’t a good move to characterize fired teachers so generally.

On Monday, Rhee finally added a little meat to the bones of her remarks.

She told NBC4 that only one teacher of the 266 fired had been facing sexual misconduct allegations. She said the teacher had been on leave and not in the classroom.

Six fired teachers had been suspended for varying charges of corporal punishment. Some had served suspensions and were back in the classrooms. All were let go for legal budget reasons, Rhee said.

Finally, two other teachers who were part of the layoff had been suspended for abusing leave or being grossly absent without leave.

That’s nine teachers out of 266 -- a pretty small portion.

"It was never our intention [to suggest], nor did I ever say, it was all of the teachers who fell in these categories," Rhee told NBC4 on Monday. "Our intention was not to paint all teachers with a broad brush stroke."

The Washington Teachers' Union, which has been losing the public relations battle with Rhee, now has an opening. It's demanding that she apologize for her magazine comment.

• WTOP gives up.

Any casual listener of WTOP radio knows that the station puts on a bunch of public-service programs, including “Ask the Governor,” “Ask the Chief” and “Ask the County Executive.”

The shows offer a slam-dunk opportunity for elected officials to get their stories out. The questions can be tough, but the exposure is worth any discomfort.

Apparently, Mayor Adrian Fenty doesn’t think so.

On Monday, WTOP inaugurated a new show, “Ask City Hall.” The first guests were D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas.

WTOP reporter and show host Mark Segraves opened the hour: "First, we want to make clear, we invite Mayor Fenty on every month to do 'Ask the Mayor,'" Segraves explained. "And for three years he has refused to come on, hasn’t taken up our invitation. So we've started this new show, 'Ask City Hall.'"

Segraves said the station has offered the mayor almost any day of the week, Monday through Thursday. He said the mayor has expressed interest in possibly appearing. But for some reason, Fenty has never followed through.

We'll see how it goes as the mayoral campaign season moves further along.

Metro fares going up.

By the time some of you read this, the Metro board may already have voted to impose a surcharge of 10 cents on rail and bus fares.

The fare hike -- and probably some service cuts -- is just a stopgap measure to close a $40 million operating deficit between now and June 30.

Then the fun begins.

The Metro board must plan fare adjustments (up, again) and more service cuts almost immediately to take care of a projected budget deficit of about $190 million for the new fiscal year.

Some advocates of Metro fear that the aging system will be caught up in a death spiral of fare hikes and service cuts that scare away riders, resulting in more fare hikes and service cuts to cover costs.

Peter Benjamin, who represents Montgomery County and Maryland on the Metro board, is due to become Metro chairman on Thursday, when the board meets to approve any changes. Benjamin replaces Ward 1 D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who has served for the past year.

In addition to dealing with fares, capital expenditures, criticism from Congress and threats of a federal takeover of safety supervision, the board has to come up with a replacement for General Manager John Catoe, who’s quitting effective April 2.

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