By Nikita Stewart and Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Heartbroken students told D.C. Council members yesterday that they didn't want their schools closed, and parents and community activists voiced suspicions about how and why Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee picked the schools to be shuttered.
The council's public hearing on the controversial proposal to close 23 schools was filled with accusations, ranging from racism to poor planning to complaints that Fenty and Rhee hoped to quash opposition by scheduling 23 simultaneous hearings on the issue Thursday night.
Testimony stretched into the night as Rhee, the day's prime witness and last on a list of 60 speakers, sat in the council chambers and listened to students' pleas and parents' fears. About two hours into the testimony, the chambers were rocked by an outburst by Zein El-Amine, a member of Save Our Schools, who stood up while someone else was testifying and said Rhee had reneged on her pledge to listen to residents' concerns.
"You promised me!" he shouted.
El-Amine yelled expletives at Rhee as he was led out of the chambers by police about 12:25 p.m.
Rhee, who testified for about three hours at the hearing, said no part of the proposal was final and that community feedback has modified her thinking.
"As the community and the D.C. Council stand with me to make these critical decisions, we will achieve what has seemed to be out of reach for too many years," she said.
But council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) objected to Rhee's inclusion of the community and council in her statement. "That's really 180 degrees from where we've been over the past three months," he said.
Gray said the council and some residents remain upset that Rhee left them out of the decision-making.
Overall, the hearing was fairly civil in tone, but there was more passion on display among protesters who assembled on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building before the meeting.
Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" blared from speakers as children, who skipped school to be there, arrived with parents. Many of the youngsters carried crayon-lettered signs.
About 50 people joined the hour-long demonstration, which was a mixture of 1960s protest and more current arguments against gentrification. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who has sponsored legislation with member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) to prevent school closings without more input from the council and the public, led the crowd in a chant of "No justice, no peace."
The demonstrators said they plan to boycott the 23 assemblies Thursday. They said they will instead attend "The People's Meeting" that evening at the Wilson Building.
Opponents also have have questioned the legality of the Fenty administration's meetings, asking whether they can be considered official public hearings without the participation of city leaders. Fenty signed a mayoral order Jan. 9 delegating authority to two dozen senior education officials to "chair" the meetings.
The well-organized assembly was an indication that Fenty and Rhee face strong, vocal opposition to the school closings. The administration says the closing of under-enrolled schools is the first step in education reform, to be followed by the creation of consolidated schools with special programs, such as those for gifted and talented students.
Leslie Saravia, a 10-year-old fifth-grader in bangs and ponytail, timidly read her speech from notebook paper in English and Spanish as Thomas held the microphone for her. Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" rang out before she started speaking. "Please, please. I am begging you not to close down my school," said Leslie, who attends John Burroughs Elementary School. "This is my second home."
Lee Glazer, mother of three public-school students, said the proposal targets "children of color." No school on the closings list is in predominantly white Ward 3.
Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Rhee, said Ward 3 schools do not have the enrollment decline seen in some schools in other wards.
Several speakers questioned what would happen to the closed schools. Some speculated that the buildings would find their way into the hands of developers and be converted into condominiums unaffordable to middle- and low-income residents. Those accusations spilled over into the hearing.
Parents at the hearing made the case for keeping particular schools open. Burroughs Elementary, which is in Ward 5, had the biggest presence. Gray said organizers had originally requested that the council hear testimony from 288 people in support of Burroughs but agreed to whittle it down to a dozen. Ward 5 has the largest number of schools slated to close, with seven.
Maria P. Jones, head of the Local School Restructuring Team at Burroughs, rattled off the school's statistics. She said that enrollment was up and that Burroughs was among the top 20 elementary schools in math and reading scores. "Why is Burroughs on the [closing] list?" she asked.
Rhee said schools were selected based on their "walkability" and other factors, including declining enrollment. Noting the school system's $50 million utility bill, she said the closures would save money that could go toward teachers and programs.
But several education advocates testified that the cost savings would be less than the approximately $23 million Fenty and Rhee have projected. "If these 23 schools are closed, it isn't really going to save us a lot of money, and it's not going to allow us to do exciting new enrichment programs," said Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Levy put the savings at about $14 million, based on her own analysis. Because finance officials have projected a deficit in the nearly $1 billion school budget, Levy said any savings would probably first be put toward closing that gap.
"Unless the council comes up with some other funding source, there's not just going to be the money there, for anything," Levy said.
Council members also questioned Rhee's reasoning in picking schools for closure, with Thomas asking why students from some schools might be transferred to ones that are failing academically.
Rhee said the proposal is intended to strengthen the system by moving successful programs to other buildings.
She said students from Leckie Elementary School sent her a "wish list" that included teachers for Spanish and music, a counselor and a librarian -- "basics for which no young child should have to lobby from their chancellor," she said. "This plan is part of my promise to Leckie's students. It is what I can do. It will require change."