Fenty's School Takeover Approved

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty won final approval from the D.C. Council yesterday to take control of the city's public schools, beginning a historic transfer of power that will place him in charge of fixing the troubled 55,000-student system.

For the second time in two weeks, the council voted 9 to 2 to reduce the authority of the Board of Education and put Fenty (D) in control of the school superintendent, operating budget and $2.3 billion capital program.

Fenty has made improving the public education system his top priority, and he took a front-row seat in the council chambers shortly before the vote. Afterward, he smiled and shook hands with the council members, including those who opposed the plan -- Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

Then, Fenty exited the chambers and pledged to begin working as soon as possible to fix dilapidated buildings, examine finances and review management personnel.

"The purpose of this vote is to create an excellent, world-class system, and we'll start right away," Fenty said.

How fast he can move remains uncertain, however, because Fenty still needs Congress to change the city's Home Rule Charter before he assumes complete authority. Mayoral aides said they foresee no roadblocks and added that they are working with the office of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) on a strategy to push the measure forward quickly.

In the meantime, Victor Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, said the administration plans to hire an outside consultant to conduct a "forensic audit" of the school system's finances and a review of management personnel, including Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.

Fenty has been critical of Janey's pace, and he has praised other superintendents, particularly Miami-Dade County school chief Rudolph F. Crew, leading to speculation that Fenty will pursue Crew. But the mayor said yesterday that he will not make a decision until the management review is completed.

School board President Robert C. Bobb said he has been working with the mayor's staff to determine the scope and timetable of the audit.

"The board can't put the school system on recess, and definitely we're not going to do that," Bobb said. "We need to work closely with the legislation that's been adopted, be adults about this and work to move the agenda forward so it focuses on student achievement."

As for the school system's finances, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi sent council members a letter this week urging them to bring in outside experts to address significant concerns with the school system's internal controls over payroll, procurement, federal grants and Medicaid services.

In February, Gandhi said that auditors warned that the city would receive an "unclean" audit next year if the problems are not corrected. In the letter this week, Gandhi said that school officials are having trouble because the system "does not have the resources and expertise to accomplish changes of this magnitude."

Under the legislation approved by the council, Fenty will have the power to fire and hire the superintendent and line-item control of the schools budget until 2010, when the council will assume line-item budget control. The mayor also will be responsible for the capital improvement program, while the school board will oversee functions usually reserved for state boards of education, such as teacher certification and standardized testing.

"The council has spoken," Janey said in a prepared statement last night. "Our aspiration is that all parties come together now to continue the progress being made in the D.C. Public Schools to give our children a quality education and increased student achievement." He did not comment further.

This will mark the first time since the creation of Home Rule in 1974 that the mayor has been in charge of the school system, despite repeated attempts to improve the D.C. public schools. In the mid-1990s, the D.C. Financial Control Board appointed a retired Army general to run the system.

Fenty's predecessor, Anthony A. Williams (D), tried unsuccessfully to win control of the schools in 2000, succeeding only in gaining authority to appoint four of the nine school board members. Williams failed a second time to take over the system in 2004, when Fenty, then a council member, joined a coalition to block the mayor's bid.

Fenty said he changed his mind on mayoral control after visiting New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg assumed control of the schools in 2002. Fenty said that the new structure will create more accountability by placing the city's top elected official in charge of the system.

Fenty's plan has been opposed by a small but committed group of activists who characterized it as a power grab that will marginalize the school board without allowing residents to vote on the change. Moments before the council voted yesterday, a half-dozen activists stood and chanted, "Respect the people! Referendum now!" until they were escorted from the chambers.

Other potential hurdles remain. Shortly after the vote, community activist Robert Brannam said he had filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court requesting a temporary injunction on Fenty's takeover, arguing that the city is not holding a voter referendum on the potential charter amendment.

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he supported the takeover because all other options to fix the schools have failed.

"To say we need to take small steps is mind-boggling," Evans said. "Is this going to be solved overnight? Of course not. But it's a step in the right direction."

Mendelson, however, said that the plan could create more uncertainty than accountability.

"We've gone through different governance structures the last 10 years," he said. "The change will not necessarily get improvements, but it does run risks. We risk more turmoil and more politics in the system."

Staff writer Theola Labbé contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company