By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; B05
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a no-show at a debate on education Monday with chief electoral opponent Vincent C. Gray, sought Tuesday to emphasize educational achievements since he took control of the city's public schools.
Fenty touted a new teachers union contract and progress in meeting court-ordered benchmarks in special education.
The mayor's news conference appeared at least in part an effort to make up for his absence at what was to be a debate between him and Gray, chairman of the D.C. Council and Fenty's challenger in the Democratic primary.
Because reform of the District's struggling school system has been the a focus of Fenty's administration, his failure to appear with Gray at the education debate raised questions.
Fenty said he never confirmed that he would appear at Monday's event, sponsored by Young Education Professionals-DC, and he said he could not appear at every forum before the Sept. 14 vote. Fenty said he has attended nine out of 12 forums and added, "We would love to make every event, but it's just not possible."
He said he had other obligations, which included attending a vigil for Steven D. Mahogany, 16, who was shot and killed Saturday in Northeast Washington. Fenty called him "a young man who had an extremely promising future."
Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said he was at the vigil, too. He said Mahogany was a Spingarn High School student who played football and was nicknamed "Hancock." Thomas said that the vigil began about 8 p.m. and that the mayor arrived closer to 8:30. The debate began at 7:30 p.m.
At the news conference Tuesday at Payne Elementary School in Southeast, Fenty appeared with top Cabinet members, including Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education.
The effort to highlight educational achievements extended beyond citing rising test scores and graduation rates, to the city's efforts to satisfy requirements of the consent decree that was part of the settlement of a special education class-action lawsuit known as Blackman v. District of Columbia.
The requirements included reducing a backlog on a waiting list for services and increasing the number of cases resolved in a timely manner. In June 2007, 19.5 percent of cases were resolved on time. Rhee said the city reached the mandated 90 percent on Monday.
Fenty introduced Rhee by talking about the teachers union contract approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday. The landmark contract 2 1/2 years in the making includes voluntary performance pay that could boost a teacher's base salary by $20,000 to $30,000.
Fenty said the contract was "a testament to her management style and leadership acumen."
In turn, Rhee said she could not have negotiated the contract and achieved other accomplishments without the mayor's backing. She said administrators from school systems elsewhere contact her and say they want to follow the District's lead.
"They always say they don't have the political cover to do it," Rhee said.
At the forum Monday, Gray, appearing by himself, faced questions about Rhee and how he could do a better job than Fenty in several areas of education.
Gray continued to promote his proposal to educate the city's youths from birth through age 24, a plan he says distinguishes him from Fenty, who has a focus on kindergarten through 12th grade. Gray put forward other ideas, including transitioning special education students back into the school system through partnerships with the private institutions now serving them.
Gray appeared to alter somewhat the response he has been giving to whether he would retain Rhee if he is elected mayor, saying that he "would say so" if he planned to fire her.