Fenty's Mode On Schools Is Breeding Alienation

By David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 3, 2007

Adrian M. Fenty was in no mood for a debate.

The mayor had just finished briefing the D.C. Council on his plan to close 23 schools next year when one member objected to being left out of the decision making. Don't forget, Jim Graham reminded Fenty, that you can't sell the buildings without the council's approval.

"Are you threatening me?" Fenty responded, according to people in the room. When Graham tried to defuse the tension, Fenty "just brushed Graham off," one council member said. A short time later, when Marion Barry attempted to give the mayor advice on his governing style, Fenty cut him off twice, prompting Barry to curse at him, Barry said.

The exchanges, which came during a breakfast meeting Wednesday, highlighted a significant shift in the relationship between the mayor and the 13-member council in their high-stakes effort to improve the troubled school system, which Fenty has called his top priority.

After winning direct control of the 50,000-student system in the spring, the Democratic mayor has begun the more difficult work of trying to bring about fundamental change. The school system, whose enrollment has been falling annually, is saddled with crumbling buildings, poorly trained teachers and underachieving students. But Fenty's eagerness to show quick progress has butted up against the need to build partnerships with the elected leaders and parents whose support he must maintain.

"Relationships and politics are inextricably tied together," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "To get things done, there has to be some ground, a level of trust, that you both know your roles."

This struggle over who is in charge of school reform has played out in other big cities. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) bypassed the council and won approval from the state legislature to take control of the schools, but he has been criticized for shutting parents out of the process. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa (D) was unsuccessful in winning political approval to take over the system.

Fenty has been criticized for failing to involve the council and community in key appointments, including those of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. But the ill feelings over the school closings plan have threatened to do more lasting damage and complicate the reform effort.

Only four council members -- David A. Catania (I-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) -- joined Fenty at a news conference to announce the plan after the breakfast meeting. The mayor and Rhee said that the money saved by closing buildings could be reinvested to add art, music and foreign-language programs. The turnout of council members was far sparser than the nine who stood by Fenty in January when he announced that he intended to take over the schools.

Even Fenty's solid supporters found it difficult to back him unconditionally. Two days after the news conference, Evans joined parents to publicly air their concerns about the potential closing of Shaw Junior High School. "I don't feel left out," as others may feel, Evans said. "The bigger issue is our children."

Clarence Cherry, who has two children at John Burroughs Elementary, slated to close, said he and other parents were shocked by Fenty's announcement because the mayor had visited the school last year and seemed supportive. "It really doesn't matter how we feel, obviously," said Cherry, president of the school's Parent-Teacher Association. "It puts a question mark on the leadership we elected for the city."

Although the council cannot vote directly on the school closings, it will vote Dec. 11 on Rhee's request for $81 million in supplemental funds to carry out the closings and partially cover a projected deficit. During an education oversight hearing Thursday, council members struck a confrontational tone with Rhee, asking her to explain how she chose the schools to be closed.

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