By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 8, 2007
No one will come right out and say it, but the message from every power center in the District government is clear: The coming storm of school reform and reconstruction will be swift, sweeping and supervised by someone other than Superintendent Clifford Janey.
Mayor BlackBerry doesn't do slowpokes, and when Adrian Fenty gets his thumbs on the D.C. public schools, as he expects to some time this spring, Janey's intelligence and dedication will matter far less than his plodding pace.
In the bullpen -- the open space at the Wilson Building where Fenty and his collection of impatient administrators ride herd on the city's famously sluggish bureaucracy -- mention of Janey's name triggers almost as much eye-rolling as the old-school antics of Marion Barry.
For all their differences over how to govern the school system, Fenty and school board President Robert Bobb seem equally frustrated by Janey's failure to move with alacrity to fix crumbling buildings, even though money for the renovations has been sitting in his accounts.
Is Janey worth keeping, I asked Bobb and Victor Reinoso, Fenty's deputy mayor for education.
Bobb: "I'll reserve comment on that one."
Reinoso: "It's premature to make management decisions before you're the manager. If he's excited about working with this new structure and he's capable of working at an accelerated pace, then there's no reason not to have a conversation."
If I read comments like that from my bosses, I'd be spending my lunch hour at Kinko's.
(Janey referred a request for comment to the school system's press office, which did not return my call.)
Fenty has surrounded himself with managers who dream of imposing private-sector efficiencies on bloated government systems. When I sat down with Reinoso, I heard a determination to lay dynamite under a bureaucracy that is addicted to memos of understanding and endless interagency negotiations. "Blow up the hierarchy" and "tear down the walls" are the battle cries of this mayor and his acolytes.
So Reinoso talks excitedly about a universal student tracking system that will, for the first time, let a teacher know immediately that the girl who is acting out in her class has a father who is on probation and in a substance abuse program and a mother who is unemployed and under the supervision of a city social worker. With a click of the mouse, a teacher could see that a child has four different city agencies dealing with his emotional and social problems.
Fenty is palpably frustrated with a school system that is utterly incapable of using existing resources to fix its antique and failing buildings. The mayor is eager to grab control of that money from the school board and give it to a new, independent authority run by construction and renovation professionals. "Two years ago, the system got $150 million to build new facilities for special education students," Reinoso says. "Not a dime of that money has been spent. Facilities is not a milieu that Dr. Janey is comfortable with. Our plan frees him of that responsibility."
The new administration's approach to school reform relies too much on the notion that fixing the top of the pyramid will create change at the grass roots, and there's precious little in the Fenty plan that would improve life where it really matters, at the school principal level. Reinoso wants to give principals more autonomy, but the mayor's plan doesn't grant principals the power to hire teachers or offload faculty who have retired in place.
But the latest proposals would give the schools far greater access to city resources that now exist in a largely separate universe. D.C. recreation centers, libraries, health clinics and social workers would be corralled into serving as extensions of the schools. Finally, Bobb says, the D.C. schools could offer the range of attractions that suburban public schools and city private schools take for granted: a full roster of sports teams and after-school programs to keep kids gainfully occupied between 3 and 7 p.m., when the bulk of the mischief occurs.
Bobb's headline-grabbing promise to boost student test scores by 10 percent in just 18 months is little more than a stunt, but he contends that it's essential to raise expectations, even if that involves failing to meet them.
"Whether it's the mayor's plan or McGillicuddy's plan, we have to bridge the preparation gap and make sure children are ready to learn when they get to school," Bobb says. "Everyone wants to see this as a fight between the school board and the mayor, but it isn't a fight. It's a conversation. When the Nationals held their first job fair when the team first came to town, so many kids came and picked up applications and then didn't fill them out. 'I left my glasses at home,' they'd say. They couldn't read. That's what we're dealing with. That's what this is about. . . .
"The whole city is now at such a fevered pitch that something positive is going to get done. That's the story."