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By Yolanda Woodlee and Ashlee Clark
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 9, 2007

The District is full of conspiracy theories, especially when it comes to the Federal City Council, the mysterious nonprofit organization of 200 city leaders working behind the scenes to help shape government policy and improve the city.

The group's own Web site says that it does not seek publicity for its work.

The timidity often lends itself to tittle-tattle, most recently that the group is the puppeteer behind Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's schools takeover. It also doesn't help that the Federal City Council is the former employer of Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso.

Let's see if we can begin to explain this most recent episode:

Last month, schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee spoke to about 40 D.C. Chamber of Commerce board members at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. According to several board members, questions were asked about how the business community could "partnership" with the schools system. Rhee said she welcomed any assistance, but that her immediate priority is to focus on getting the schools open. She said the schools system didn't have the "capacity" -- staff and tools -- to engage in a partnership right now.

Well, along the way, a rumor began circulating that Rhee had told the business leaders that any approval for initiatives must come from the Federal City Council.

Gina Arlotto, co-founder of Save Our Schools, wrote to D.C. Watch, the government watchdog blog, that Rhee "had calmly informed those in attendance that all proposed school initiatives (presumably any from the business community, but it seems like any through her office as well) must 'secure approval' from the Federal City Council before implementation in DCPS." Arlotto said this was evidence the business group would be running the school system.

When asked about her e-mail to D.C. Watch, which is widely read in the community, Arlotto said: "I stand by what I posted. People are afraid to call the Federal City Council on the carpet. . . . They're meddling in our business."

Several board members, including Chamber President Barbara B. Lang, said that Rhee did not tell them they needed to coordinate programs with the Federal City Council. Lang said she personally remembers speaking of the council, but wasn't sure Rhee had.

"I mentioned that I was working with the Federal City Council to make sure we coordinate our efforts and don't step on each other," Lang said. "Rhee certainly did not say that everything needs to be coordinated through the Federal City Council."

From this episode, however, an idea has sprung. Kelvin J. Robinson, a member of the D.C. Chamber who asked Rhee about the partnership, became even more concerned about helping the school system after hearing last week that student textbooks were stacked in a warehouse.

Maybe his fellow business leaders could pull together and offer some much-needed assistance, Robinson said, particularly if the school system sent out a "clarion call."


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