Senate Approves D.C. School Takeover Plan
Resident Seeking Referendum Is Permitted to Gather Signatures

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The U.S. Senate unanimously approved D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's school takeover legislation yesterday after a hectic day of negotiations with city officials, leaving the mayor one signature away from taking control of the troubled public education system.

The bill awaits final authorization from President Bush, who could sign it by the end of the week, District leaders said. Under that scenario, Fenty (D) would assume authority over the 55,000-student school system by the end of the standard congressional review period, probably around June 14.

But even as the mayor drew nearer to completing his takeover, a new challenge emerged when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled in favor of a city resident who is seeking to force a referendum on the legislation.

Mary Spencer, who has grandchildren in the public school system, will have a chance to collect the roughly 20,000 signatures of registered voters she would need for a referendum. Spencer will have about one week to complete the task, beginning June 4, said William O'Field Jr., spokesman for the elections board.

If Spencer is successful, the takeover could be placed on the ballot for an August special election that has been scheduled to fill an open school board seat.

Fenty said in a statement that the city intends to challenge the elections board's ruling in court.

"We think the . . . decision is wrong and will be overturned," he said. "We remain focused on the substance of our education plans and look forward to having our education reform bill in place as soon as possible."

Fenty is seeking to reduce the power of the D.C. Board of Education and put himself in charge of the school superintendent, budget and capital program. The D.C. Council approved the bill last month, and the House of Representatives ratified it two weeks ago.

But the bill had a tougher course in the Senate, where it faced three challenges, including two that were resolved yesterday.

Fenty began the morning with a phone call to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who had placed a hold on the legislation last week over concerns about whether the city's state education functions would have enough autonomy from the rest of the school system.

Landrieu lifted the hold after receiving assurances from Fenty that he and Board of Education President Robert C. Bobb, who had brought the issue to Landrieu's attention last week, would find a resolution after Fenty took over the schools.

Moments after Landrieu acquiesced, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) placed the third Senate hold on the bill, exasperating D.C. leaders.

City officials said Levin indicated he wanted to resume negotiations over his long-standing push to have meters installed in District taxicabs, which operate under a controversial zone system.

After speaking with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Levin removed the hold. Sources with knowledge of the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Levin was concerned that Fenty had not responded adequately to a letter from the senator in January asking the city to make a decision on taxi meters.

A spokeswoman for Levin declined to say why he had temporarily held up the bill.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) put the first hold on the bill over concerns about the city's plan to rebuild a youth detention center in Anne Arundel County. He withdrew the hold a few days later.

The troubles Fenty's plan faced in the Senate led some city officials to question privately whether the mayor had done enough to secure political support for the bill. The mayor has been in Las Vegas for a convention of shopping center developers this week.

Bobb's role in Landrieu's actions also has raised questions at the District building. Landrieu's spokesman said Monday that the senator had blocked a vote on Fenty's bill at Bobb's request, an allegation Bobb vehemently denied in an interview yesterday.

"We never asked her do to that. Absolutely not," Bobb said, adding that his staff requested that Landrieu remove the hold after learning of her actions this week.

Both houses had to vote on the school takeover because the plan required an amendment to the city's Home Rule Charter, established by Congress in 1973.

Some city officials said that the entire episode in the Senate highlights the need for the District to receive full congressional voting rights.

"This just makes it clear how much D.C. needs its own representation on Capitol Hill," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "This would never have happened if we had a senator who could put a hold on legislation for Louisiana."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company