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D.C. Council, School Leaders Differ on Funds

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

D.C. Council members balked at pressure from school officials to reprogram $83 million for building repairs that the officials say are needed before classes resume on Aug. 25. Instead, the council authorized less than half of that amount, with Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray saying that a hearing will be required for some of the funding requests because policy changes for elementary and middle school students were being made through the back door.

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Allen Y. Lew, head of school modernization efforts, had urged the council to approve an $83 million package of contracts. They each wrote letters to the chairman late Monday saying the education of 4,500 students would be in jeopardy if the emergency requests were not approved.

But last night, the council voted on only two emergency contracts and made way for four others to go through unchallenged today, which would yield a total of $31 million for repairs at more than two dozen schools.

Gray said he wants more information about contracts involving schools that are becoming pre-K through 8th grade. Those contracts are worth about $50 million, and will require a hearing because the schools' reconfigurations represent policy changes by Rhee.

Calls to school officials seeking comment were unsuccessful last night.

Yesterday's votes came at the end of a 10-hour legislative meeting that began with the introduction of a gun bill meant to put the city in compliance with last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the District's strict handgun law as unconstitutional.

With the unanimous support of his 12 colleagues, Phil Mendelson introduced a bill that would end the city's handgun ban and make it legal for residents to keep firearms in their homes without requirements that trigger locks be used or that they be disassembled.

Mendelson's bill would still require that guns be kept unloaded and disabled, but it would offer an exception for gun owners who say the firearm is present in the home for immediate self-defense.

Mendelson (D-At Large) said he will depend on the testimony of witnesses at a round-table discussion today to decide whether emergency legislation should be introduced before the body recesses July 15. Otherwise, he said, the council will vote on the issue in the fall.

Gray (D) has said he will call a special summer meeting if necessary.

The self-defense exception would also extend to people keeping a firearm in their place of business.

"The language is taken verbatim from the last page of the Supreme Court ruling," Mendelson said. "The Supreme Court ruling was regrettable, but nevertheless, it is the law of the land."

Also yesterday, the council voted on bills that would address energy consumption and place electronic message boards for voting rights at the John A. Wilson Building and Nationals Park.

The boards would provide a tick-tock of the taxes the city pays to the federal government despite not having a full vote in Congress. Gray said the council would pass the measure despite objections by the Washington Nationals baseball team, which has the right to veto the plan under its lease agreement with the city. The Nationals have deemed the board too political for the American pastime, Gray said.

The council also voted unanimously to give initial approval to a bill introduced by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) that would create a new utility responsible for ensuring that 20 percent of energy used in the city comes from renewable resources by 2020. The proposal follows the creation of similar utilities in a handful of states, including Delaware.

Although those votes and other action prompted long and lively debate on the dais, the gun bill appeared to overshadow everything else in terms of media and national interest.

Cheh commended Mendelson for "moving swiftly" and said that she was supportive but that she had reservations. "I am not conceding that . . . we make an open-ended exception" for trigger locks, Cheh said.

It's the same issue that has given interim Attorney General Peter Nickles pause. Nickles said he is asking the council to delay action until the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) can weigh in on how the city's new laws should read. Nickles has reasoned that the city can meet the Supreme Court ruling and still require trigger locks.

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