Fenty's future rides on more than Rhee

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 10, 2010

Who would have thought in an election year that people would be asking whether D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is reason enough to vote for Mayor Adrian Fenty in September? But it's a serious question.

Rhee's detractors would probably scream in response: No! But even if you are a Rhee fan and hope she is kept on as chancellor after the election, your answer still should be no. There is much more to the mayor's job than overseeing the person who runs the public schools.

That's not to say that Rhee hasn't been a factor in the city. She has loomed large as a change agent, shaking up and reshaping the school system in ways never seen before. Rhee, I believe, will go down in history as one of our city's most consequential public school chiefs.

True, her credentials as an educator and administrator hardly match those of her predecessor, Clifford Janey. And she lacks the savvy and grace of Floretta McKenzie or the leadership abilities of Vincent Reed.

But Rhee has tackled the transformation of an urban school district with single-mindedness and energy unseen in these parts. Blood on the floor? Yes. But she's brought new life to an ossified school system that warehoused children rather than educated them.

Yet is she irreplaceable? No way.

To be sure, the school system is one of the keys to the District's recovery and future. At the end of the day, however, well-trained, well-equipped and highly motivated principals and teachers, coupled with parents who send their children to school ready to learn, are what help make a good system. If Rhee has built on the academic groundwork Janey laid, as her supporters say, and put in place the building blocks of good teachers and administrators, then D.C. public schools' upward trajectory will continue with or without her.

If you like Rhee's track record, then Fenty deserves a nod for selecting and backing her during her three stormy years as chancellor.

But overseeing the schools chief is only one task in the mayor's job description. Far more is at stake.

The city's fiscal health is paramount. On it hang not only the schools but also the capacity to maintain public safety, provide municipal services and preserve the safety net for vulnerable residents. Voters must decide which candidate is best equipped to manage those responsibilities.

Still, it's easy to understand how we have reached a point where, partly through her own doing, Rhee has become a factor in this year's race.

Adrian Fenty is not where he expected to be at this stage in the contest. He entered the mayor's office three years ago having captured every precinct in the city. He has placed a tight lid on the government, managing it with the firmest hands this city has seen since Richard Nixon left town. Fenty's campaign is flush with cash and a small army of paid workers. He is opening so many parks, playgrounds and housing developments that he's running out of ribbons to cut.

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