By V. Dion Haynes and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Parents and community activists called yesterday for a boycott of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's 23 public hearings on school closings set for Jan. 17 and have set up a single meeting that evening for residents to attend instead. Fenty's multiple gatherings, critics say, are an effort to minimize public input.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said he supports the boycott, and fellow council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) helped secure the John A. Wilson Building as a meeting site. The mass meeting is a response to public anger over Fenty's decision two weeks ago to cancel a citywide public hearing and replace it with 23 hearings that Fenty (D) said would allow for more detailed discussions. Activists opposed the arrangement because the mayor and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee would not be able to attend all the hearings.
Parents from some of the schools slated to be closed and community activists formed the Coalition to Save Our Neighborhood Schools. The group has launched a citywide campaign -- including fliers, radio public service ads and church announcements -- urging parents to attend what is being called "The People's Meeting" at the Wilson Building.
Fenty "is on his one-man routine. We're telling parents we don't have to put up with this," said Cherita Whiting, a parent activist and coalition member.
"Parents are not going to sit back and be told what to do," she added.
Rhee announced in late November a proposal to close 23 underenrolled schools by summer, an effort aimed at addressing the system's declining enrollment. Paring unneeded space has been widely accepted as a way to save millions of dollars in operational costs that could be plugged into instruction. But council members and activists immediately lashed out at not being included in determining which schools should close.
The council had already scheduled a hearing on the closings for Monday, so Thomas said his main goal was to help provide a meeting site for the parents and activists.
"People felt blindsided" by Fenty and Rhee's decision to cancel the citywide hearing, Thomas said.
"People understand there must be changes in how we operate buildings that aren't at full capacity," he added. "People want to be part of the process. . . . They want to make sure it's prudent, thoughtful and fair."
Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said yesterday that the chancellor is satisfied with the public comment process and does not plan to cancel the 23 hearings.
"Community input has been a central component of the process," Hobson said in an e-mail. "To date, we have held six community forums and will round out the week with three more. During these meetings, residents, parents and students have provided tremendous feedback and dialogued with the Chancellor and Deputy Mayor [for Education Victor Reinoso] with opportunities for one-on-one interaction."
Council members were initially angered about learning of the school closings from the media rather than from Fenty and Rhee.
The controversy over the public hearings illustrates growing tensions between some council members and Fenty over school reform, a dispute that in recent weeks prompted lawmakers to introduce legislation that would give them -- and not the Fenty administration -- the final say over school closings.
Thomas has sponsored a bill that would give the council more authority to determine what happens to vacant school buildings and has pressed Rhee to share with the public how she determined which schools should close. Thomas said he has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for Rhee to provide documents on criteria for closing schools, asbestos in the buildings and facility plans. "I'm waiting for a response," he said.
Last month, Barry and Thomas opposed legislation that could give Rhee the power to fire nonunion workers without cause. The council will take a final vote on the bill today.
Barry and Thomas failed to gain support for an alternative measure that would have limited the types of workers who could be fired and would give them a chance to be trained for other jobs.
Both council members are known as friends of labor, but they are also facing political pressures.
Barry is up for reelection this year, and Thomas, a freshman council member elected in 2006, represents a ward that some residents say is the city's dumping ground. Residents say the ward has now been picked to bear the brunt of the school closings. It has the most proposed closures of any ward, seven.