By Nikita Stewart and Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writers
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).
"I wish you well," Schwartz said as she shook the mayor's hand.
Fenty, however, was careful not to declare victory. He noted that the morning vote was the first step to full approval, and he pledged to work with the council until the bill is passed.
A legal challenge is pending by a Ward 4 council candidate, who is arguing in D.C. Superior Court that the council should delay action until after a May 1 special election to fill the unexpired terms of Fenty and council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who represented wards 4 and 7, respectively, before taking office in January. On Monday, a judge rejected the request for a temporary injunction but scheduled a hearing for Friday for a preliminary injunction.
Veronica Johnson, who lives in Ward 7 and is the PTA president for River Terrace Elementary, said yesterday that she was upset that the council voted without all of its members in place. The council rejected an amendment pushed by Mendelson and Schwartz to hold a public referendum.
But Johnson, who has two grandchildren at River Terrace, said she hopes the new structure means that the broken windows and dirty bathrooms at the Northeast school can be fixed.
"I'm hoping that our mayor will do something. I'm praying, really, that there'll be a change at River Terrace School," Johnson said.
In a separate emergency vote yesterday, the council approved a plan to release $250 million so that Janey and the school board can start on a school modernization plan -- a compromise struck after the council balked at school officials' request for $1 billion with no details on how the money would be spent.
Fenty has spent much of his time aggressively selling his takeover plan at community meetings.
On Monday night, the eve of the council's vote, he promised residents at a community meeting at Rosedale Recreation Center that his administration would fix broken windows and bathrooms, repaint walls and restore order in classrooms within two months of taking control. And he said test scores would improve significantly within two years.
"But the basic things that will create momentum, you'll see us get that done in the first two months," Fenty told the crowd of a few dozen.
Meanwhile, Gray was walking the halls of the Wilson Building to get feedback from council members and stayed in his office until 3 a.m. yesterday to prepare for the council's deliberations, which began with a 9 a.m. breakfast meeting.
"We worked very closely with the mayor and the mayor's staff on something everybody can live with," Gray said. "We know we're together on this draft."
Other changes included adding language that would give the school board more authority. "We beefed it up," Gray said. "They'll have real responsibilities."
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.