Activists Organize To Fight Fenty Plan

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

The congregation at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Anacostia listened attentively as Cherita Whiting delivered an impassioned sermon, warning of hidden agendas and unseen dangers.

But Whiting is no preacher; she is a community activist. And her exhortations on a recent evening were not biblical but political: She was speaking out against Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's plan to take control of the District's public school system.

Clutching a handful of Internet printouts, Whiting told about 50 people spread out among the pews that Fenty (D) is attempting to seize control of the system so he can close traditional public schools to open charter schools.

"Charter schools are opening on every corner like liquor stores!" Whiting concluded, drawing laughs and applause.

Fenty's proposal is intended to reduce the power of the Board of Education and transfer authority over the school superintendent and budget to himself and the D.C. Council.

But the debate is so intense that Whiting, president of McKinley Technology High School's Parent-Teacher-Student Organization, is ratcheting up the rhetoric. She is one of roughly two dozen diehard community activists waging a desperate campaign to rally opposition to the mayor's proposal.

Facing long odds and a short timetable -- the council could vote on the plan by March -- the activists have begun coordinating their efforts around common themes. They are holding public meetings, distributing petitions and planning a day-long "teach-in" to go over the finer points of Fenty's 48-page plan. Their goal is to present a show of force at the council's Feb. 7 public hearing.

But they will have to compete with the Fenty administration's formidable publicity machine. Fenty took council members to New York in December for a hard sell of a takeover plan from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R), produced an expensive report by private consultants about the merits of mayoral control and unveiled Fenty's proposal at a crowded news conference attended by parents and children.

By comparison, the response to community activists' efforts has been underwhelming, with empty seats outnumbering attendees at some forums.

Last month at Kelly Miller Middle School, for example, the D.C. group Parent Watch flew in five school activists from New York and Chicago to discuss the problems with mayoral control of schools. The group provided a free buffet and invited the community, but fewer than 20 people showed up in an auditorium designed for 10 times that number.

Sheila Carson-Carr, Parent Watch's education coordinator and an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 7, acknowledged last week that crowds have been small. But, she said, "a lot of the people coming to meetings are also leaders of groups. They're coming in representing a lot of people."

Fenty aides said most of the opposition is generated by a core of activists who have been controlling the school reform debate for years. Furthermore, the small turnout shows that there is not widespread opposition to the mayor's plans, said Victor A. Reinoso, Fenty's deputy mayor for education.

"The bulk of folks accept that the schools don't work and accept the mayor's initiative on this," Reinoso said. "People are prepared to let [the takeover] happen and see what happens."

So far, neither the board nor the Washington Teachers' Union has taken the lead in organizing public opposition to Fenty's plan. Board President Robert C. Bobb has scheduled a news conference for tomorrow to announce the board's strategy. Union chief George Parker said his group is waiting to review Bobb's plan before taking a position.

Among those who have attended community forums to debate Fenty's proposal are representatives from education organizations, neighborhood commissions, churches and civic associations. Usually, a school board member or two will show up, along with people running for political office.

Objections to Fenty's plan vary among community activists. Some do not support reducing the power of the board, and others are fearful of the council gaining line-item control of the school system's operating budget.

For now, opponents said, the emerging consensus is to wage the initial fight over procedure rather than policy. They are seeking signatures on petitions that demand the council put off its vote until after a May 1 special election to fill vacant council seats in wards 4 and 7 and one open school board position.

At an evening meeting last week in a government building in Judiciary Square, minister Ralph J. Chittams Sr. of First Baptist Church stood to read the petition, which drew applause from the roughly 20 people in the room with more than 100 chairs.

"Whether the schools need to be fixed is inarguable, but this is not the measure to do it," Chittams told the crowd, which included board members William Lockridge (District 4) and Lisa Raymond (District 3) and Ward 4 council candidates Michael Brown and Renee Bowser.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who supports Fenty's plan, said most of the activists are sincere. But he added that some of the consternation is being generated from interest groups fearful of losing their outsize influence.

"A lot of people are making a lot of money on our system, and they do not want that system to change," Evans said. "If you start with a cynical point of view, what is the reason they do not want to change anything?"

The activists say they are fed up with broken promises.

Timothy L. Jenkins, a former interim president of the University of the District of Columbia who lost his recent bid for the board, has moderated several public meetings. Each time, he listed failed efforts to remake the schools, such as the financial control board's choice of an Army general to run the system in the 1990s.

"We're not going to let Fenty ram this down our throats," said Gina Arlotto, a co-founder of Save Our Schools, which organized the event at Bethlehem Baptist Church. "I'm not discouraged by the turnout. We're still going to move forward. Everyone we talk to will go out and talk to five more."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company