By David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty characterized his administration's verbatim copying of portions of an education plan from another school district as a "serious issue" that should not have happened, while District leaders warned that the matter threatened to erode support for the mayor's takeover of the public schools.
Fenty (D) said the administration made a mistake in lifting sections of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system's "strategic plan" and using them without attribution in a document submitted to the D.C. Council in February.
"We need to make sure the public knows this is not how it should have happened," Fenty said after initially declining to answer reporters' questions.
Fenty sought to put the matter behind him, declaring himself satisfied with an apology issued Tuesday by Victor Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, who took responsibility for the copying.
But Fenty's bid to reduce the power of the Board of Education and take direct control of the troubled 55,000-student school system faced another hurdle when an anonymous U.S. senator placed a "hold" on the takeover legislation Tuesday. It is not clear why the senator blocked the bill or how long the hold will last. The council approved Fenty's plan last month, and the House of Representatives ratified it this week.
District officials said they feared that the revelation of the copying could complicate the mayor's effort to improve the schools. Fenty has made the takeover his top priority, saying he will hold his administration and school officials accountable to residents.
"What this does is fuel further fear about the capacity of this group to get the job done," said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who voted in favor of the takeover and still supports it. "It undoubtedly shakes the confidence of the public in moving forward with a complicated and time-sensitive task."
Gina Arlotto, a member of Save Our Schools, which opposed Fenty's takeover, said the copying showed that the mayor and his aides lack education expertise.
"This just shows they do not know what they're doing," she said. "They can continue to have this aura of, 'We are competent, we are capable, we have vision.' But they have the vision, competence and abilities of Charlotte."
Fenty and Reinoso submitted their 31-page school improvement plan to the council in February as a blueprint for how Fenty would improve the schools. Before that, Fenty had said that he would follow the master education plan developed by Superintendent Clifford B. Janey while improving management and speeding up reform efforts.
In an interview yesterday, Reinoso said the February document was intended to lay out additional initiatives to support the master plan. The document, which has "DRAFT" stamped on each page, was an early effort to collect "best practices" from school districts across the country, Reinoso said.
He said the document grew to 67 pages of plans culled from New York City, Denver, Oakland, Miami-Dade County and other school districts, in addition to Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Reinoso then reduced it to 31 pages before submitting it to the council, which had a series of public hearings on the takeover legislation.
Reinoso apologized for failing to attribute quotations in his report.
"We drew from best practices, in some cases borrowing directly," Reinoso said. "I take full responsibility."
Reinoso said he has not visited the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and did not talk to officials there while preparing the document. Nearly a third of the Fenty administration's report was identical to the strategic plan developed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Peter C. Gorman last November, according to iThenticate.com, a plagiarism detection system used by The Washington Post to compare the documents.
"It is bad enough that the work of others was copied without attribution," said Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), one of two council members to oppose the takeover. "But it is even worse that this was apparently done by the mayor's top appointee to lead his takeover."
Fenty said yesterday that word-for-word copying was not what he had in mind when instructing his aides to examine what has worked in other jurisdictions.
"When we talk about best practices, we mean a thorough examination of what has worked well in other school systems and bringing them back to the District of Columbia," the mayor said.
Reinoso, a former D.C. school board member, stressed that it is common practice for school systems to share information, adding that the D.C. school system's academic standards are virtually identical to those developed by the state board of Massachusetts.
Iris Toyer, head of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, was part of a committee of parents, teachers and other school administrators that spent months adapting the Massachusetts standards for the District. The school system clearly notes on its Web site that the plans, which in some cases used the same language, were modeled on those standards.
"We didn't just say, 'Okay, let's use those,' " Toyer said. "We spent a lot of time making sure they provided the perspective that we wanted our students to have. . . . That's the type of analysis that you have to do if you're borrowing someone else's work. You just can't take it."
Education experts and Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials acknowledged that school systems share information about successful strategies. But they noted that what works in one place does not necessarily work in another. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg system has 130,000 students, far more than the District.
"You are a completely urban system," said Trent Merchant, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member. "We are known as a large urban system, but we are really a blend of urban and suburban. We've got small unique towns different than the center of the City of Charlotte. Our plan is designed to be site-specific.
"We did a lot of looking around at what other systems are doing, but there was some original thought about what would work well here. We synthesized it, and it was very comprehensive."
Charlotte-Mecklenburg has won raves for vast improvements over the past decade, after years of desegregation busing. But the gains were made under previous superintendents. Officials note that Gorman's plan is largely untested and has faced criticism from parents.
D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who supports Fenty's takeover, said she worried that the administration's mistake in copying the Charlotte-Mecklenburg plan is a "needless embarrassment that deflects from the ideas themselves."
Staff writer Theola Labbé contributed to this report.