City Officials Squabble Over Takeover Plan
Secrecy, Subversion and Senate Intervention Dog Divisive Proposal

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's high-stakes effort to seize control of the District's struggling public school system has set off a fight for influence and power among the city's top elected leaders.

Since Fenty (D) announced a plan to place himself in charge of the superintendent and budget, his political rivals have sought to ensure that they, too, will have a strong hand in the overhaul of the 55,000-student system. At times, the mayor's style has irked Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who have said that he failed to communicate his plans and left them out of key decisions.

But Board of Education President Robert C. Bobb, whose role is set to be diminished the most by the mayor's proposal, took drastic action last week. With Fenty's takeover legislation already approved by the council, Bobb went around the local political process and contacted a U.S. senator in an apparent attempt to ensure that he would maintain more authority than planned. The move angered the mayor and other city leaders, who questioned Bobb's political future.

The incident has led some to question whether the leaders can work together effectively when they should be gearing up for the transition of power and the new school year.

"A lot of the city's top leaders don't talk to each other enough," said community organizer Terry Lynch, who has been supportive of the Fenty administration. "That's been a problem in this town for quite some time, but it's only gotten worse with the significant turnover of key leaders. There's political jealousy. Mr. Fenty has taken his office's powers to a new level regionally and nationally, and there is tension and animosity between political leaders."

When Fenty announced his takeover plan, he called Gray and the rest of the council his partners and took them on a trip to study New York City's schools. Gray attended the news conference at which Fenty laid out details of his proposal.

Behind the scenes, however, the two bickered over how much time the council would spend deliberating on the legislation. Fenty wanted to move forward as quickly as possible, but Gray rebuffed him by scheduling seven public hearings, said a council source with knowledge of the discussions.

More recently, Gray has been upset that he has not been included in weekly meetings between Fenty and Bobb designed to facilitate the transfer of power over the schools.

"Once the council passed the legislation, he has not invited us to any of those meetings," Gray said of the mayor.

Bobb, who took over the school board in January, fought Fenty's takeover from the start. He threatened to quit the board if Fenty's plan was approved by the council and offered an alternative proposal that gained little traction.

Once the council ratified the takeover, however, Bobb repositioned himself as a partner with the mayor. At a news conference, the pair pledged to work collaboratively.

So it came as a shock to Fenty when Sen. Mary Landrieu's office said last week that she had delayed a Senate vote on the takeover legislation at Bobb's request. The Louisiana Democrat, her spokesman said, wanted to ensure that the new State Board of Education would operate independently from the mayor's office.

Bobb, who would become head of the state board under Fenty's governance structure, quickly denied his role. Landrieu withdrew her objection a day later, and the Senate approved the takeover bill. But the fallout was quick: Bobb was let go from a consulting job with a powerful developer eager to curry favor with Fenty, and other city leaders piled on.

"That was a huge error in judgment," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "For an elected official to go to the Hill to circumvent the process -- however it happened, it's a no-no."

Asked about his relations with Bobb, Fenty professed to have put the issue behind him. "What I have to do is get the school system ready for the first day of school," he said. "I do not have the luxury of looking backward."

The episode angered Norton, who has had her own disputes with Fenty, particularly over who will lead the city in the push for voting rights. But she gave strong support to the mayor's takeover legislation, quickly moving it through the House of Representatives.

For a week, however, it remained unclear why Fenty's bill had been blocked in the Senate; Landrieu had chosen to remain anonymous. With Fenty at a convention in Las Vegas, Norton issued a news release asking the anonymous senator to come forward.

When Landrieu did so, Norton took charge, negotiating a deal among Landrieu, Fenty and Bobb. Norton resolved a subsequent impasse when Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) briefly delayed the bill over Fenty's response to an inquiry regarding Levin's longstanding push to install meters in D.C. taxicabs.

Norton, who has reprimanded Fenty in the past for his approach to Capitol Hill, made a point of instructing the mayor to apologize to Levin, according to a source with knowledge of the discussion.

In the end, the city's elected leaders are wondering whether they can repair lines of communication.

"There's got to be an enormous level of trust," Gray said. "But can you trust the person sitting across from you if you have something like this?"

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