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Foes Question City's Ability to Run Schools

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Opponents at a D.C. Council hearing yesterday protested Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's controversial plan to take over public schools, and their anger spilled over into a hallway during a confrontation with council members.

In the third of seven public meetings on Fenty's proposal, witnesses included representatives of education watchdog groups who questioned the city government's ability to run the 58,000-student system. Anger surfaced when former school board member Valencia Mohammed said she feared Fenty (D) and council members would take over the school budget and use it for political patronage.

Mohammed also dressed down council members individually, questioning whether member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a newcomer to politics, is knowledgeable enough to make an informed decision and making a reference to member Marion Barry's past drug use.

Barry (D-Ward 8) said the council would not tolerate personal attacks. "There is no place in this city for that," he said.

The debate continued in the hall after a recess. Mohammed and Cherita Whiting, chairman of the Ward 4 Education Council, approached Barry during a TV interview. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) was standing next to Barry.

Mohammed said she did not understand how the council and mayor were going to tackle education when they have handled other issues poorly. "What are you going to do about all the unsolved murders in this city?" asked Mohammed, a community activist who has lost two sons to homicide.

"We do not want [the school system] to be in the hands of some hip-hop mayor," Mohammed said, referring to Fenty, 36.

Whiting shouted, "You want to give our schools to someone who doesn't have an educational background."

The tension stemmed from last week's lengthy hearing, when several council members left before parents gave their opinions about the plan. Mohammed, Whiting and others said they were also upset that council members asked them few questions yesterday and instead made statements about how they feel about the failures of D.C. public schools. Many council members said they support the takeover plan.

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who opposes the takeover, asked those present to "take it down a notch" but said she understood the opponents' frustration. She said the proposal already appears to be a done deal. "They know the die is cast. It's already been decided," Schwartz said.

Opposition to Fenty's plan has grown and this week received a boost from the Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which, with nearly 8,000 D.C. government workers as members, is the largest union representing city employees. The union has promised to provide the grass-roots opponents with funds for advertising, mailings, mass phone calls and lobbying.

The opponents pooled $1 and $20 donations to pay the travel expenses for yesterday's star witness, New York City Council member Charles Barron (D), an adversary of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R).

Barron, who serves on his council's education committee, told D.C. Council members that a mayoral takeover is not the answer to the city's dropout rates, poor test scores and crumbling schools. "The worst thing you can do is give the mayor absolute power," he said.

Although some council members said they were impressed with Bloomberg's results, Barron said test scores have risen marginally and do not reflect what is really happening in the classroom, as some students still struggle to learn and unhappy teachers are leaving the system.

Barry said he was unmoved by Barron's arguments.

"I honestly think you've done a disservice when you say there hasn't been a change in New York. . . . The numbers speak for themselves," he said.

A fourth council hearing exclusively for students and dropouts will be Saturday. The council could vote on Fenty's proposal as early as April.

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