Fenty Takes Hands-On Role as Opening Nears

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty visited Browne Educational Center in Northeast recently with two friends: Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and facilities chief Allen Y. Lew.

This was no leisurely tour. The three leaders had come to see why renovations had bogged down.

Browne is among several schools that will accept hundreds of additional students this year as part of a massive overhaul of the 49,000-student system. The system has been losing 3,000 students a year, prompting Rhee to close 23 school buildings.

At Browne, to accommodate the new students, Lew recently ordered additional contractors to finish adding a science lab and renovating bathrooms.

"We're going to a school where things are not going as fast as we wanted them to," Fenty said. "I want to see how we're doing."

Fenty's second year in charge of D.C. public schools begins Monday, and he wants to avoid a setback. In addition to closing the 23 schools, Rhee fired 98 central office workers, named 46 new principals and is in the middle of negotiating what could be a revolutionary, and controversial, merit-pay system with the teachers union.

If his focus last year was to support Rhee as she began making major changes, Fenty (D) now wants to focus the administration on school reform. Principals met recently with workers from parks and recreation, health, procurement and police. It was meant to send a message that principals should expect help from all city agencies, Fenty aides said.

Mary Levy, who has long monitored D.C. schools for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said she is nervous about the changes and whether the administration can open schools smoothly.

"They did it last year, but it will be a lot harder this year," she said. "They've taken on so much more because of the closings. And they've fired some good people."

Meanwhile, D.C. Council members, including Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), have complained that the mayor has left them out of his reform efforts. In a letter last month, Gray challenged Fenty and Rhee to provide a master education plan and a facilities modernization plan to the council.

"One full year into the reform effort, however, we do not have either of these, and that is leading to growing concern over the direction of the reform effort," Gray wrote.

This summer, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) held up about $8 million in construction funds Lew needs to complete the summer repair program. Lew has warned in a letter to Gray that the holdup could result in safety concerns in some school buildings and stop work on roofs, bathrooms and heating systems.

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