D.C. Schools Takeover Gets Initial Approval
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
The D.C. Council granted preliminary approval yesterday for a dramatic shift in power for the city's public schools, giving the mayor control over the budget, key administrative functions and the blueprint for modernizing every dilapidated building in the 55,000-student system.
Following the example of other big-city mayors, notably Michael R. Bloomberg (R) of New York, Adrian M. Fenty (D) would assume the reins of the school district, and the school superintendent would report directly to him.
After final approval from the council, which could come as early as April 17, and Congress later this spring, parents could see the first changes in the fall. As part of the new structure, the council would have line-item budget control, and the school board would set academic standards.
In one of the biggest departures from the plan that Fenty announced in January, the council would have the authority to rescind the mayor's control over the schools if he did not show "sufficient progress in education" within five years.
Council members, who approved the takeover in a 9 to 2 vote on the first reading, spoke passionately about the need for a sweeping change in governance to stop the mass exodus of students from public schools. They said they are putting their trust in 36-year-old Fenty, who lobbied ardently for the takeover.
"This man has an ability to be single-minded. He knows this issue . . . has to be in the forefront of his actions," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "It is the combination of frustration and hope that brings me to a yes vote today."
The council and Fenty hammered out significant changes to the school takeover during the past week. One measure altered Fenty's proposal to create an independent construction authority, with a board and chief executive appointed by him. Instead, the new entity would be a city agency under Fenty's control, with a director who could not be fired by the mayor without cause and without approval by the council.
Critics quickly voiced their disappointment. Jeff Smith, the District 1 school board member, announced he would resign April 19. "I think the city council made it clear today that the Board of Education wasn't part of its vision for education reform in the city," said Smith, who is in his third year in the post.
There would still be an elected school board and an appointed superintendent under the takeover. Fenty would not discuss whether he would retain School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.
Janey said in a statement that the council's vote does not change his vision for improving the low-performing school system. "Our commitment to the children of the District of Columbia has not changed with the council's vote. We will continue to work to improve academic achievement in our schools," he said.
School board President Robert C. Bobb said in a statement that he would stay on the board, although his role would be diminished. "Now that the council has acted, it's time for leaders in the District to sit down, roll up our sleeves, and work together . . . with the interests of the children of the District front and center," he said.
Immediately after the vote in committee, Fenty, who was sitting in the front row of the ornate council chamber, nodded slightly, though his face remained expressionless. Then he got up and shook hands with each of the council members, including the two who had opposed the measure, Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).