Cardin Blocks Takeover Of Schools

By David Nakamura and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 11, 2007

Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has held up D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's schools takeover legislation, citing a dispute over the city's plans to rebuild a youth detention center in Anne Arundel County.

Cardin (D) blocked Fenty's plan, which has been approved by the D.C. Council and the House of Representatives, by placing an anonymous hold on the legislation when it was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday. Cardin only revealed himself and his concerns to District officials yesterday.

Fenty (D) has made improving the city's 55,000-student public school system his top priority. He seeks to take control of the system and reduce the power of the elected Board of Education. The bill requires approval from Congress and President Bush because it would amend the Home Rule Charter approved in 1973.

Cardin said he does not object to the mayor's school takeover and pledged not to hold up the legislation for long. But he added that he wanted to use an education-related bill to renew negotiations on a long-standing dispute between Anne Arundel and D.C. officials over the future of Oak Hill Youth Center in Fort Meade.

Fenty could not be reached to comment and was in New York City yesterday with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi for a routine meeting with Wall Street analysts about the District's finances.

Two D.C. Council members were angered by Cardin's attempt to use the schools plan to force the city into new negotiations over Oak Hill.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) characterized Cardin's move as "deeply offensive and troubling."

"It's a reminder of our second-class status, where we don't control our own fate, and it's playing politics with the lives of the children of District of Columbia,'' Cheh said. "I'm mad. I don't think this is some political football you kick around. The kids need us to get it done."

The city has operated the center in Anne Arundel since 1967. But the building, largely isolated on the 880-acre property, is dilapidated, and city officials have begun plans to rebuild it to house 60 youths. Maryland officials have been pushing to acquire the land for a regional park and other uses.

Cardin said he would prefer if city officials agreed to rebuild Oak Hill in the District, but he added that such a move would not necessarily be a prerequisite for him to remove his hold on the takeover legislation.

"I hope this can be resolved," he said. But if not, "I will not delay the enactment of this bill."

Cardin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) recently introduced a bill to force the current detention center to be moved to Washington. The bill also calls for the land to be split between the National Security Agency, which abuts the property, and Anne Arundel.

The land is owned by the federal government and was made available decades ago in a land grant to the District.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said Cardin has unfairly linked a dispute between two jurisdictions to the District's school reform efforts.

"Why are we mixing a Maryland land grab with the welfare of children in the public school system?" Graham asked. "Maryland wants the land. This should not be part of what we're talking about right now. . . . He should not be doing this. It's a separate issue."

Nevertheless, Cardin said that he spoke with Fenty yesterday and that they have agreed to meet, along with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R), next week.

Norton said she is convinced that a resolution can be reached.

"The senator is no newcomer to this issue and has worked diligently to find a mutually satisfactory solution at Oak Hill over the years," Norton said in a statement. "Sen. Cardin has always been a good friend of the city."

Aides to Fenty and Cardin had met April 30 to discuss the topic along with Sarbanes and Leopold. Fenty had planned to be involved in that meeting but changed his plans because of a fire at the Georgetown library.

Suspecting that Cardin had held up the takeover legislation, Fenty's chief legislative aide, JoAnne Ginsberg, spent much of yesterday trying to work out an agreement with Leopold on Oak Hill.

"That's helpful," Cardin said. "If [Anne Arundel officials] are happy campers, and Maryland officials are happy campers, then I'm a happy camper."

The mayor has hoped to get his schools legislation approved quickly so he can prepare for the next school year. His aides had said they did not expect objections in Congress.

District officials have been talking about rebuilding Oak Hill since 2005. In recent years, the 220-bed center has been plagued with escapes, crowding and security problems. In December, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the city to produce a comprehensive plan to improve living conditions at the center.

D.C. officials hope to finish construction of a new facility by next year. City officials say completing the project quickly is crucial because the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services is being monitored by the court.

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