Fenty to Seek Private Funds, Community Input to Help D.C. Schools

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is planning a campaign to raise private funds for the District's public schools and a series of town hall meetings on education as he gears up to take control of the 55,000-student system, government officials said yesterday.

Fenty (D) wants to begin efforts to improve the schools even as he waits for Congress to amend the city's Home Rule Charter, which is required to transfer authority from the Board of Education to the mayor. Last week, the D.C. Council approved the plan to put Fenty in charge of the superintendent, operating budget and $2.3 billion capital program.

Administration aides acknowledged yesterday that they remain unsure how long it will take Congress to act, with estimates ranging from 30 days to more than two months.

In the meantime, Fenty's aides are developing plans for a transition period to ensure a smooth handoff from the school board to the mayor. Victor Reinoso, the District's deputy mayor for education, declined to elaborate on the plans, which are to be detailed in a news conference Friday.

But aides said that a key portion of the transition would be gathering community input through town hall-style meetings and e-mails. Also, they are developing plans for a private fundraising effort similar to the one New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) set up after he won control of that city's schools in 2002.

Bloomberg, a business mogul before taking office, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Although Fenty aides do not expect to match that amount, they point out that the District's school system is tiny compared with New York's 1.1 million students.

Meanwhile, administration officials are scheduled to meet today with school board President Robert C. Bobb to discuss a "forensic audit" of the system's finances and a performance review of management. Also today, Fenty will meet with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi to discuss concerns about the school system's internal controls over payroll, procurement, federal grants and Medicaid services.

Even as Fenty moves forward with the takeover, however, he is facing legal challenges.

A Superior Court judge was scheduled to hear testimony from two community activists, Robert Brannum and Marc Borbely, who have filed independent lawsuits, arguing that the city and Congress cannot change the Home Rule Charter without a referendum.

And Mary Spencer, a District resident with two grandchildren in the public schools, said she is seeking to force a referendum by gathering signatures on a petition that she will file with the Board of Elections and Ethics.

"My rights have been taken away from me," Spencer said. "We need to have more voice in what happens in our schools."

District lawyers are confident that the city will prevail in the court challenges. In a letter to Attorney General Linda Singer, Walter E. Dellinger, a legal expert consulting for the District, wrote that the Home Rule Act "does not bar the Council from proposing an amendment to the Charter . . . and then submitting that proposed amendment to Congress for enactment."

Dellinger noted that the council and Congress amended the charter to create an independent chief financial officer in 2001 without holding a referendum.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company