Council Candidates Critical on Schools
By Vanessa Williams
Education dominated the two-hour forum sponsored by the D.C. Democratic State Committee and held at the University of the District of Columbia. About 100 people, most of them already attached to a particular candidate, attended the debate.
"The city council has not acted in a timely and efficient manner to improve the quality of the lunch program, to manage charter schools and school closings," said candidate Don Reeves, who currently represents Ward 3 on the elected Board of Education.
Reeves said he is running for council because the school board has become essentially powerless since the D.C. financial control board stripped it of its policymaking authority in 1996 and created an emergency school board of trustees.
Charter schools also surfaced as a major source of concern among the candidates. A majority of the field said they support the schools, which are public institutions that operate with public money but are independent of the central school administration. But many warned that if the council does not keep an eye on their proliferation, the basic public school system could be jeopardized even further.
In addition to Reeves, the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination are Phil Mendelson, a Ward 3 advisory neighborhood commissioner; Bill Rice, a former newspaper reporter; Charles Gaither, a former city employee; Sabrina Sojourner, the city's shadow representative in the U.S. House of Representatives; Greg Rhett, a Ward 7 community activist; Phyllis J. Outlaw, a lawyer and Democratic Party activist; Linda Moody, the Ward 8 representative to the elected Board of Education; Kathryn A. Pearson-West, a Democratic Party activist; and the Rev. William H. Bennett II, a founder of the Washington Interfaith Network, a coalition of religious organizations. The nominee will be chosen in the Sept. 15 primary election.
The public school system was not the only area in which the candidates criticized the council for lax oversight. Candidates took aim at the council for not being more diligent in confirming department appointees, failing to keep an eye on management of federal grants and proceeding with plans for a convention center at Mount Vernon Square in the Shaw neighborhood north of downtown.
Most of the candidates said they would have voted against the Mount Vernon site and instead studied an alternative site near Union Station in Northeast Washington.
Rice accused the council of routinely confirming "underqualified nominees" and approving "half-baked policies."
He said the council never should have approved Larry D. Soulsby as chief of police and David Watts as head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Rice also said he would abolish the arena tax.
Rice was loudly and frequently cheered by a small but vocal contingent of supporters.
Moody and Reeves had to defend their records on the Board of Education.
"I did not fail the children," Moody snapped at one point in response to an accusatory question posed by an audience member. "I do not teach. I set policy. What I was able to do, I did."
Reeves noted that he was elected in 1996, only to see the control board strip his panel of its authority and transfer it to the emergency trustees panel.
"I've been in office one year and eight months," Reeves said. "I cannot be blamed for 25 years of failure."
Mendelson criticized the council for failing to publicize its meetings and hearings and said the media could also do a better job of covering the panel. Council members "don't send out newsletters until there's an election," said Mendelson, who pledged to try to keep taxpayers in the loop.
Two at-large council seats are up for grabs in the November general election, and Democrats are anxious about winning one. Last December, in a special election for an at-large council seat, the party's nominee, former council chairman Arrington Dixon, lost to Republican underdog David Catania.
In that election, only 7 percent of the city's registered voters cast ballots. Washington Post editorial board member Colbert I. King, the moderator of last night's debate, noted the defeat was especially embarrassing in a city where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. He asked each of the candidates if they had voted in the December election. Only Outlaw and Rhett said they had not.
The candidates all pledged to be full-time council members if elected, noting that some current council members sometimes awkwardly juggle their outside careers with council duties.
But asked if he would continue his work as a minister, Bennett responded, "I don't have a job. I have a calling, and I will never give that up."
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