Welcome, Mr. Mayor

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

ADRIAN M. FENTY will be sworn in today as the District's fifth mayor on a wave of hope and optimism so high even his closest advisers wonder how long it can last. Much depends on whether Mr. Fenty (D) is as adept at governing as he was at campaigning. The brash young politician who won the city's unquestionable support now must make good on his promises of progress.

It is encouraging that Mr. Fenty has demonstrated sound judgment in the months since his victory in the September primary all but guaranteed his election. Foremost has been his selection of able, experienced people to the top jobs in his administration. It's to his credit that he didn't wait for his victory in the general election to announce that he would reappoint Natwar M. Gandhi as the District's chief financial officer, thus reassuring a jittery business community that a change in the city's political leadership won't mean a relapse into fiscal irresponsibility. Likewise, Mr. Fenty's artful recruitment of the very able Dan Tangherlini to serve as city administrator underscores his seriousness about improving the day-to-day performance of city agencies.

It is too soon to judge Mr. Fenty's other appointees, many of whom are interim holdovers from the administration of outgoing Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Mr. Fenty made a campaign promise to bring in fresh blood, but his cautious approach makes sense given the complexity of D.C. government and the big learning curve he faces. Nonetheless, Mr. Fenty would do well to make a priority of putting a permanent team in place.

After all, many bedeviling issues require action. Some projects started in the Williams administration -- from the construction of the baseball stadium to fixing the libraries to building new housing communities -- need to be completed. Costly problems such as the city's shortfall in Medicaid reimbursements have persisted too long without remedy. And far too many people who live on the margins -- from the mentally retarded to the homeless -- have been given short shrift and shouldn't have to wait any longer for government help.

Yet Mr. Fenty's biggest challenge -- the one that carries the most political peril for him and the greatest consequence for the city -- is tackling the abysmal state of the public schools. Despite some of the highest per-pupil school spending in the country, too many D.C students lack the basic skills critical for success, and too many school buildings are in awful shape. The result is a system that is being abandoned by parents who have the wherewithal to get their children into charter or private schools. Mr. Fenty is correct in his belief that the city will never truly prosper if its schools remain broken, and his resolve to do something about them should be applauded. But it's vital that he proceed carefully, mindful that even if he succeeds where his predecessor failed in a mayoral takeover of schools, reformed governance is no panacea for the educational ills of a dysfunctional system.

Mr. Fenty commissioned an outside consultant to assess what has been successful in other public school systems, and that could be a useful guide as he works with the D.C. Council on reform. Incoming council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) is reorganizing the committee system so education becomes the responsibility for all council members meeting as a committee of the whole. It's a welcome move that highlights education as a priority.

The best chance of winning approval for any school improvement plan is likely to come in the honeymoon days of Mr. Fenty's administration, but he must not seek a political victory at the expense of developing a plan that actually has a chance of working. Mr. Fenty, in running for office, appealed to voters' impatience for change. Now, as mayor, he'll need patience to achieve it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company