By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008; B02
D.C. Council members gave a cool reception yesterday to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's $2.5 billion plan to modernize public schools, calling it vague, incomplete and developed with little participation by District residents.
Council members expressed particular unhappiness that neither Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee nor Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso was present, even though they were invited nearly a month ago. Rhee and Fenty (D) are principal architects of the plan, but they left it to Allen Y. Lew, head of the mayor's school construction operation, to explain the blueprint.
Lew, accompanied by an entourage of at least seven aides, had to refer a series of questions back to the mayor's or chancellor's office.
Most long-range capital construction plans work on a 10- to 20-year timeline. The core of the Fenty-Rhee plan is a $1.3 billion attempt to bring at least some improvements in lighting, air quality and technology to most of the city's 3,200 classrooms by 2014. All of those factors have been identified in research as helping to improve student achievement.
It also calls for extensive overhaul of the city's high schools, including the complete reconstruction of at least one, Dunbar. The remainder of the money will be spent on improving heating, cooling and electrical systems in other schools.
The plan does not affect school projects currently underway, such as construction of a new H.D. Woodson High School. It will be financed primarily by the sale of general obligation bonds and by tax revenue from the general fund.
But council members and a school facilities expert who was called to testify yesterday said the blueprint lacks information that is usually basic to any long-range plan. This includes data on the current condition of school buildings, a history of money spent on each school, and plans to deal with asbestos and lead.
Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which studies the improvement of urban schools, called the plan "vague and conceptual" and said it should be treated as a draft.
Filardo and council members were also critical about the lack of community participation in shaping the document. Under questioning by Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Lew acknowledged that a public school modernization advisory committee held meetings that were not open to the public. Two sparsely attended public hearings, announced with just five days' notice, were held this week.
The absence of Rhee and Reinoso added to mounting resentment among council members over what they describe as Fenty's reluctance to communicate or consult on education matters.
"I don't think it is too big an imposition to come before the people's representatives to explain how these resources are to be expended," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).
Gray (D) said it was "regrettable" that both Rhee and Reinoso "found it inconvenient to be here." The modernization plan would require the council's approval.
Mafara Hobson, Fenty's spokeswoman, said Reinoso "spent the day in meetings, reviewing budgets, benchmarks and accomplishments with agencies under his purview" and would appear with Rhee at an Oct. 10 council hearing.
Dena Iverson, Rhee's spokeswoman, said the chancellor informed the council Sept. 4 that she would be unable to attend. She declined to describe Rhee's schedule yesterday or say whether the chancellor was in town.
Rhee has been outspoken about the low value she places on appearing before the council. In the September issue of Fast Company magazine, she described watching council hearings on television: "There's this crazy dynamic where every agency head is kowtowing. They sit there and get beat down. I'm not going to sit on public TV and take a beating I don't deserve. I don't take that crap."
Filardo said the administration's indifference to public participation is a serious issue: "There is a notion that public involvement, engagement, is a problem, that it gets in the way and slows things down."
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.