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Bush Approves Charter Change for Takeover of Schools
City Asks Court to Overturn Election Board Decision and Disallow Referendum

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007

President Bush approved a District charter amendment yesterday that takes power away from the Board of Education and advances Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's plan to control the public schools.

Fenty (D) must wait until June 12 -- when the standard congressional review period for his takeover legislation expires -- to assume full authority over the struggling 55,000-student system.

And Fenty's plan still could be derailed by a challenge from residents. Yesterday, D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to overturn a decision by the city's Board of Elections and Ethics that would give residents a chance to force a referendum on the mayor's takeover plan.

The board ruled last month that a referendum would be held in August if residents can gather signatures from 5 percent of registered voters, about 20,000 people, by the June 12 expiration of the review period. The residents may begin collecting signatures Tuesday.

In her court filing, Singer said a referendum would be improper for two reasons: Congress has approved the Home Rule Charter amendment that Bush signed yesterday; and Fenty has signed legislation that funds positions created under the takeover plan and places the school budget under the control of the mayor and D.C. Council.

"The Board's acceptance of the Referendum would result in immediate and continuing uncertainty," she wrote, as officials "prepare for the 2007-2008 academic year."

The case was assigned to Judge Lynn Leibovitz. Mayoral aides said the city and election board have agreed to an expedited schedule under which the court would hear arguments Wednesday.

Kenneth McGhie, an attorney for the elections board, was out of the office yesterday and did not return a message left with an assistant.

The election board had ruled in favor of Mary Spencer, a D.C. resident who argued that she should have a right to vote to overturn the takeover legislation approved by the council. Spencer has two grandchildren in the public schools.

Matthew Watson, a lawyer who advised Spencer, called Singer's argument "imaginative but wrong," noting that the mayor's fiscal 2008 budget has not been approved by Congress.

"It's a budget request, not a budget," Watson said.

In an interview, Singer said the budget "expresses the will of the council and mayor. It is a change of appropriations. What the [school] board used to control, the mayor and council will now control."

Singer's court challenge comes a day after she sent a letter to the election board asking it to reconsider last week's ruling. The board had not responded to that letter, Fenty aides said yesterday.

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