By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
A coalition of D.C. activists launched a campaign yesterday to enlist volunteers to gather about 20,000 petition signatures in an uphill effort to put Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's school takeover legislation to a referendum.
The loosely knit group expects to have about a week to gather the signatures of registered voters, starting about Tuesday. But the organizers vowed not to quit in their fight to have a public vote on Fenty's takeover plan, which has been approved by the D.C. Council.
"Mayor Fenty needs to allow us to vote," Mary Spencer, vice president of D.C. ACORN, said at a news conference attended by a dozen activists in front of the District government building. "We voted for him. Before he steps over us, why not allow us to have a say in this?"
The activists have set up a Web site, http://www.letmevote.org, to enlist volunteers in their petition drive. They said they will stand at grocery stores and Metro stops to collect signatures.
But even as the activists planned their next steps, Fenty kicked off the first of a series of town hall-style meetings in each ward to gather community input as he prepares to assume control of the schools.
More than 100 residents showed up for the meeting, at Johnson Junior High in Ward 8. They sat in small groups and discussed, in workshop format, questions such as "What should be the top three priorities" and "How can we ensure schools are safe"?
Zenobia Gardner, a teacher at Johnson for 35 years, told the crowd that the problem with the school system is funding.
"The schools need additional funding for full-time psychologists and social workers," she said.
Mary Hart, a parent, said that she agreed that funding is important, but she wants to make sure the money is spent on classroom needs, not central administration.
"Where's the money?" she asked. "Mismanagement has been our number one problem."
Spencer won the first step in the referendum drive last week when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that she would be allowed the chance to gather signatures in an attempt to force a vote. Fenty (D) has said the city will challenge the board's ruling in Superior Court, but District attorneys had not filed their legal papers as of yesterday.
Under the election board's decision, Spencer and her allies can force a referendum if they persuade 5 percent of the city's registered voters to sign a petition, including at least 5 percent of the voters in five of the District's eight wards.
That task is monumental, especially since the activists will have only a week. They are challenging the legislation approved by the council last month that would transfer authority over the school superintendent and budget from the Board of Education to the mayor.
The legislation has been sent to Congress and, assuming there are no objections, will become law June 12, after the standard congressional review period expires. Once that bill is ratified, there can be no referendum. Congress has voted to approve a separate change to the city's Home Rule Charter that would allow the council-approved takeover bill to be enacted. President Bush is expected to sign the charter amendment within days.
If the activists can present the 20,000 signatures to the elections board before June 12 and the signatures are verified, the takeover legislation would be suspended in Congress, and a referendum would be scheduled for August, according to elections board officials.
Fenty administration officials have said the public has had plenty of time to weigh in on the legislation, including seven public hearings before the council.
Spencer and her allies, however, said yesterday that the mayor is subverting home rule by not holding a referendum on his bill.
"What is he afraid of?" asked Dennis Moore, an activist. "A precedent is being set by this mayor that says people will not have their due process. What else is next?"