Schools Spiff-Up Is Hard Sell For Fenty

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008; C01

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.

"When the mayor came in, many people did not know him well," said Terence C. Golden, the council's chairman. "We saw evidence last year that the mayor was focused on improving the quality of the city in terms of bringing in an extremely strong chancellor to run the school system. He spent every day asking, 'What can I do to improve education for the city?' "

After taking control of the schools in June, Fenty started the inaugural buff and scrub program, asking developers to contribute at least $10,000 worth of labor and materials to paint classrooms, fix boilers, install lighting and repair roofs. A meeting at the John A. Wilson Building last spring was packed with eager participants.

The Fenty administration had left little to chance. Although the program was being overseen by Victor A. Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, both Fenty and Neil O. Albert, the deputy mayor for economic development, helped make the pitch. Fenty's presence made clear the importance. Albert's presence, some developers said, sent the message that companies should get on board if they expected support from the administration on their individual projects.

Those who did not sign up heard about it again and again. Russell Hines, vice president at Monument Realty, said his company did not participate last year because it was already spending $100,000 to install air conditioning at Amidon Elementary in Southwest Washington.

"Whenever we bumped into the mayor, we always got the question, 'Did you do buff and scrub?' " Hines said. "It was an embarrassing situation where we had to say, 'No, but' and then launch into a long explanation about why not."

For the most part, the program enjoyed overwhelming support. Christopher Smith, president of the D.C. Building Industry Association, said virtually all the companies that participated contributed well above the $10,000 minimum in labor and materials.

But as Fenty aides have sought companies for a second summer of buff and scrub, they have found a more tempered reaction.

Fenty aides attributed the lower turnout at the kickoff meeting April 25 to poor communication. The administration is planning another meeting before the program restarts June 13.

But representatives from several firms that took part last year said they were uncertain whether they will participate this summer, although they were reluctant to speak on the record for fear of angering the mayor.

Smith, whose firm, William C. Smith & Co., spent $150,000 at Ballou High School last summer, said developers thought last year's effort was a "one-time deal."

"The city needs to get out a clear message," Smith said. "We need to get our hands around what the long-term plan is."

Even those who are willing to sign up again are weighing the costs in a sluggish economy. The Associated Builders & Contractors, which adopted eight schools last year, has signed up for one school this time, spokeswoman Judy Gretsch said.

To Dinegar, there was a critical piece missing in the administration's meeting presentation.

City officials explained that they have broken down the buff and scrub schools into two tiers. Tier One schools have no major maintenance projects scheduled in the next several years and therefore are the top priority for the program. Examples of wish lists developed by at least two principals -- including retiling the cafeteria, patching restroom walls and repairing the alarm system -- were distributed to the developers.

What was missing, Dinegar said, was an explanation about why the school system's custodial staff and modernization office are not doing that work.

"There is still a need, but we expect that some basic elements should be taken care of by the team that is in place," he said.

The amount of success the Fenty administration has with the D.C. business community could play a major role in its inroads with the national foundations, which usually require a local match before authorizing major grants.

"There are some companies that did a lot last year that are burned out. And there are some who were involved and see the need and really want to help again," Gretsch said. "Whether that's enough to carry it through, we won't really know until the end."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company