Schools Spiff-Up Is Hard Sell For Fenty

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration has launched an aggressive campaign to raise $75 million a year from the private sector to help pay for his high-stakes school reform effort, but the appeal has been met by the business community with skepticism and sticker shock.

Fenty (D) recently established the independent D.C. Public Education Fund to solicit donations from area businesses. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has made overtures to national foundations operated by Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad and the family of Sam Walton. And the mayor's office is asking developers to contribute at least $15,000 each to spruce up schools in the summer "buff and scrub" program, a 50 percent increase from last year.

The campaign is patterned after a similar effort in New York, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), a billionaire business executive, parlayed his long-standing Wall Street connections to bolster that city's education budget. Within Washington's private sector, however, early enthusiasm and support for the mayor's school takeover has begun to give way to a touch of fatigue and frustration.

When the mayor held a meeting last month to recruit companies for the buff and scrub program, representatives of fewer than 50 firms showed up, compared with more than 80 last year. Business leaders said they are willing to contribute but expect something in return: Fenty and Rhee must show how private-sector investment will improve the almost-50,000-student system and make it more capable of eventually reassuming the burden.

"When a number like $75 million gets thrown around, as the mayor has said on a number of occasions, we've consistently reminded him we are not New York," said James C. Dinegar, chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "The part that's most critical for the mayor and chancellor is to make the case. The business community does not want the request coming in dribs and drabs. Let's see a four-year plan, a three-year plan, even a one-year plan. Give it to us."

Fenty administration officials said the needs are clear. Last fall, consultants hired by Rhee identified a $130 million deficit in the system's nearly $1 billion budget. Although the school modernization office has a $200 million annual capital improvement fund, the bill for renovations and simple maintenance soars well beyond that.

"The point of our approach is to maximize what I think is already overwhelming support from the private sector to get the schools fixed," Fenty said.

Rhee said that she has developed a plan that lays out exactly what the $75 million will be used for and that she intends to provide more details in discussions with the national foundations during the next two to three months. (Rhee has also negotiated extra money from the federal government, which she includes in the fundraising goal.)

Among the initiatives Rhee wants to pay for are a partnership with private organizations to operate low-performing schools, an incentive pay program for teachers and a training academy for principals.

"There is a tremendous amount we're doing in our reform effort that we believe is truly transformative, different, outside the box," Rhee said. "And most of those things we think it's appropriate to fund through external dollars at the outset, then, after they are proved effective, fund them internally."

Fenty's budding partnership with the private sector represents an alliance between two sides still learning to trust and understand each other. During his mayoral campaign, the business community supported his rival, former D.C. Council chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). Fenty, then a council member, was viewed as a populist with little financial experience.

But Fenty has made the rounds and impressed chief executives who identify with what they see as his hard-charging managing style, business leaders said. Even before taking office, Fenty met with the Federal City Council, a group that bills itself as being dedicated to improving life in the city, to stress his focus on education reform.

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