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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.

"This time was the first major pushback," said Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), whose district has the most schools slated for closure: seven. Thomas will hold a hearing tonight on the closings.

Fenty attempted some damage control, dropping by unannounced to chat with Thomas and Gray on Thursday.

In an interview, Fenty rejected the notion that he has been dismissive of the council, saying his plan to brief them before making the news public was undercut by a Washington Post story Wednesday morning that revealed specifics.

Asked why he and Rhee did not ask residents or council members for input before developing their list of schools, Fenty explained that Rhee must act without concern of political pressure. "I said to the chancellor: 'We need a plan to fix schools. You put together a plan free of any factors except what's best for kids,' " Fenty said. He added that parents will be able to weigh in during nine public hearings this month.

As for the council, Fenty, who spent six years as a member from Ward 4, said, "I not only respect but appreciate the role of the council."

Tony Bullock, who served as spokesman for former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said Fenty recognizes that residents don't want their elected officials "wasting a lot of time sitting around chitchatting." But, he added, the mayor should work to keep the council on his side, lest members try to block his initiatives.

As frustrated as some council members have been, they have seldom exercised their displeasure from the dais. Last spring, Gray temporarily delayed the appointment of Victor A. Reinoso as a deputy mayor. But if anything, the council has helped Fenty consolidate power. In addition to handing him the schools, it also allowed him to take over two independent city planning agencies.

The council's support has been influenced by Fenty's unprecedented sweep of all 142 voting precincts in last year's election. The council, some members acknowledge, must walk a fine line of challenging the mayor while avoiding the appearance that it is obstructing progress.

Fenty has also wielded his political capital to win support. He endorsed Bowser in her bid to replace him on the council; helped raise money for Evans, who faces reelection next year; and supported Catania's proposal to bail out financially strapped Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Those three members have been among Fenty's most consistent boosters.

Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who voted against the takeover and has been a vocal critic of Fenty, said the council's pushback last week could become a defining moment.

"The mayor's testiness was a surprise. I think the criticism from some of the allies was also a surprise," Mendelson said, adding that members must decide "whether the council . . . is willing to put up with this kind of governance. If the members are willing to continue to be an afterthought, that's how it will work for the next few years."

Fenty's dust-up with Barry (D-Ward 8) and Graham (D-Ward 1) was especially notable because they were the only two council members to endorse his mayoral bid. Last week, Barry said Fenty is "acting like a dictator. He doesn't bring us in unless he needs us."

Graham said his relationship with Fenty remains cordial but added that he thought he asked a "legitimate question" at the breakfast meeting.

"My whole point was simply to get a legal interpretation of whether we had legal authority over these school closings," Graham said. "Then it sort of went downhill from there. I don't know why."

Fenty said he has no regrets about how he rolled out his school-closings plan. Harkening to his campaign, Fenty said residents were clear that his priority must be to improve public education as quickly as possible.

"In many ways, this is still a connection to that overwhelming tidal wave of outpouring of 'Fix the schools,' " he said. "People want us to fix the schools almost by any means necessary because it's taken so long."

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