Ethics Panel Blocks Referendum

By David Nakamura and Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics reversed itself yesterday and declared that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's school takeover plan cannot be the subject of a referendum, opening the way for the mayor to assume control of the 55,000-student system Tuesday.

The board had ruled two weeks ago that residents would be given the opportunity to force a public vote on the mayor's plan by gathering the signatures of 20,000 registered voters. Attorneys for the District challenged the decision in Superior Court, which was scheduled to hear the case today.

But in a court filing yesterday, attorneys for the election board said that because Congress and President Bush have approved an amendment to the city's Home Rule Charter that removes power from the Board of Education, the takeover plan can no longer be put to voters. Under the charter, residents cannot undo an act of Congress.

Because of the reversal, the Superior Court hearing has been canceled, officials said.

Fenty (D) is seeking to oversee the school superintendent and the $2.3 billion school modernization plan. He and the D.C. Council would share control of the operating budget. The school board would no longer have control over day-to-day decisions but would become the equivalent of a state education board, charged with overseeing such functions as standardized testing and teacher certification.

The council approved the plan last month, and the mayor is scheduled to assume authority over the system after the standard congressional review period for the legislation expires Tuesday.

Residents who had lobbied for a referendum reacted angrily yesterday to the election board's reversal.

"There's still no democracy," said Mary Spencer, a referendum supporter who has two grandchildren in the city's public schools. "The mayor did not hear the people. . . . We'll see what our next step will be."

In a statement, Fenty said: "Each day we get closer to a new era of accountability and excellence in education for all of the District's children. I look forward to bringing the District's public education system into the mayor's office and I am honored to have the opportunity to give our children the world-class education they deserve."

Fenty has begun preparing for the transfer.

He and top school officials began a four-month audit of the system this week designed to improve efficiency, the first step in the mayor's goal of reorganizing the system. Victor A. Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, has been working on planning for the opening of the school year in August, including renovating buildings, hiring teachers and ordering supplies.

Fenty also has been deliberating over the future of Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, whom the mayor is leaning toward replacing, according to government sources.

Parents who supported the mayor said he must make good on his promise to improve the troubled school system, which has crumbling buildings, poorly trained teachers and underachieving students.

"He's got control. Now he had better do a hell of a good job to fix it," said Wendy Sefsaf, the mother of a Stoddert Elementary School student. "Time is short, and patience is short. We want to give Fenty a shot, but he better prove it."

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