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Critics Mobilize to Stop Fenty From Taking Control of Schools

By Theola Labbé and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 5, 2007

A day after the D.C. Council gave preliminary approval to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to take over the city schools, reaction among parents and citizens ranged from tentative hope to resounding reproach.

Critics complained that the public was not given a chance to vote on the proposal; supporters said the schools desperately need the jolt.

"I think the situation with the schools is not good now, so the mayor mostly being in charge couldn't hurt," said Anita Robbins, 30, who lives in Petworth and is shopping for a new charter school for her son, Derrick, 9. She said neither his current charter school nor his local school, Park View Elementary in Northwest, is up to par.

The D.C. Council approved the takeover in a 9 to 2 vote Tuesday on the bill's first reading. The council will take a final vote this month and, if Congress approves, Fenty (D) could assume control of the 55,000-student school system.

Under the plan, the role of the school board would change from a local advisory board that sets curriculum policy and controls the school budget to a state-level board responsible for issues such as testing. The council's vote led District 1 board member Jeff Smith to announce that he would resign.

But newly elected District 3 member Lisa Raymond said she intends to stay on even if the board's mission changes. "I think there's potential for it to be very meaningful," she said.

Critics of the proposal have not given up on one of their core concerns -- that such a sweeping proposal should have been put to a public vote.

The D.C. Coalition for Democracy in Education, an alliance of parents, educators and others pushing for a public referendum on the plan, is organizing a lobbying effort to "get council members to change their votes," said Timothy L. Jenkins, who ran for school board president last year.

If they do not succeed in changing the outcome, the group is assembling volunteers to gather signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

"The best interest of youngsters will not be served by creating a one-stop czar," Jenkins said.

Several critics questioned the validity of such a revolutionary decision taken by a council that has two empty seats in wards 4 and 7. Fenty was the Ward 4 member and Vincent C. Gray (D) represented Ward 7 before being elected to the chairman's post. In the May 1 special election to fill those empty seats, the proposed school takeover has been a burning campaign topic.

Cleve Mesidor, a Ward 7 candidate, and Charles Gaither, a Ward 4 candidate, said they favor Fenty's plan but disapprove of the council's decision to vote Tuesday.

Tuesday's vote "left a bad taste in people's mouths," Mesidor said. Postponing the vote "would have been a better olive branch."

Ward 4 candidate Lisa Comfort Bradford sought to stop Tuesday's vote. After a hearing Monday, a D.C. Superior Court judge denied her request for an injunction, ruling that the four at-large members could speak for residents of wards 4 and 7.

Ward 7 candidate Roscoe Grant Jr. said the plan does not adequately address the issues that have hampered student success. "The real issues are a lack of discipline and a lack of parental involvement," he said.

Other candidates in the ward races said that residents of the two wards had been disenfranchised. Their objections, sent in e-mails and through lobbying, went unheard, they said.

Artee Milligan, a Ward 4 candidate, said he would have voted against the plan if he were a council member. "There's a big question mark on whether changing the captain will do the job," he said. "Let's make sure we make the right change."

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