Schools Takeover Could Be Delayed

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's attempt to take control of the D.C. public schools by next month could be set back by complicated legislative procedures on Capitol Hill and a long-shot effort by residents to force a ballot referendum.

Fenty (D) is seeking to reduce the power of the Board of Education and put himself in charge of the 55,000-student system, a proposal approved by the D.C. Council last month.

This week, the Senate gave final authorization to a related measure, approved by the House, that would amend the city's Home Rule Charter and allow a transfer of power from the school board to the mayor.

But Fenty could be forced to wait until August to assume authority even if President Bush signs the amendment this week.

That's because the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled Tuesday that residents will be granted an opportunity to force a referendum on the takeover. If they collect an estimated 20,000 signatures of registered D.C. voters by mid-June, the legislation will be suspended until a special election in August.

Fenty and his attorneys said they will appeal the elections board's ruling in Superior Court. But if the ruling holds, the activists could receive petitions and begin collecting signatures by June 4, officials said.

The residents, who are expected to have about a week to collect signatures, acknowledge that their chore is massive. But they're recruiting volunteers and have set up a Web site,

"There's no telling what will happen with an organized movement," said Marc Borbely, a resident who helped argue the activists' position before the elections board.

The referendum would interfere with Congress's approval of the charter change and even a signature from Bush because of the complicated nature by which the District is overseen by federal officials.

The Home Rule Charter amendment is separate from a standard 30-day congressional review of the takeover legislation approved by the D.C. Council last month. That review is set to expire about June 12, officials said. If no one objects, and assuming Bush has signed the charter amendment, Fenty would then win control of the school system.

But the Fenty administration expressed concern that if the referendum goes forward, neither the mayor nor the school board may be legally empowered to run the school system until the vote is conducted.

Matthew Watson, an attorney who helped the activists present their case before the elections board, said he believes that the school board would remain in charge. City attorneys declined to comment on the matter because they are drafting legal arguments to challenge the elections board's ruling in court.

In the meantime, the uncertainty surrounding the schools was accentuated yesterday when Carolyn N. Graham, the school board's vice president, said she was resigning effective next Thursday. She is the second board member to quit since the council approved Fenty's takeover.

Graham said in an interview that she wants to spend more time working on children's issues on a grass-roots level and that her school board duties were becoming too time-consuming.

She added that her decision was not influenced by Fenty's plan to turn the board into a State Board of Education, responsible only for decisions usually handled by state boards, such as standardized testing and teacher certification.

"I do not want it attributed to that," she said. "The work of the state board will be tremendous going forward."

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