Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday he intends to go ahead with controversial proposals that would increase his influence over public school policy and help relieve prison overcrowding by transferring less-dangerous criminals to halfway houses.
Barry announced his plans during a "State of the District" address to about 400 invited city officials and civic leaders at the new Washington Convention Center.
The mayor also used the speech to outline proposals to spur economic growth, provide health and social services and hold down transportation costs during the next four years in the face of reduced federal assistance.
"Because of national policies which are largely beyond our control, we have no one to turn to but ourselves," Barry said. "America may be on the mend, but many American cities are in need of intensive care."
While Barry's speech largely echoed themes he raised in his second inaugural speech last month and in his fiscal 1984 budget message, his pledge to take a more active role in the affairs of the school board and the University of the District of Columbia appeared to go well beyond earlier statements.
"The District can be much more creative in its educational programs than we have been," he said. "Therefore, I will soon take actions to involve school support groups, parents, students, businesses, community organizations and others in efforts to improve the success of our educational programs.
Barry said his efforts would help the independent school board "to maximize educational potential" and find more creative ways to prepare youngsters "for the jobs of today and tomorrow."
The mayor's plan to create a temporary blue-ribbon Commission on Education, which would advise him on long-term public school finances, programs and space utilization, has raised concern among some D.C. school board members that Barry may be trying to usurp the board's authority.
The mayor traditionally has reviewed school board requests for funds and made his own recommendations to the City Council, but he has not gotten involved in the schools system's curriculum or long-term budget planning.
"I'm sure there will be some reluctance on the part of the school board," Barry said after his speech. "Some members want to be an island unto themselves."
School board President David H. Eaton said recently that he was suspicious of the proposal--which was devised by Barry's transition team--and feared that Barry may have become overly eager to expand his power base. School Superintendent Floretta McKenzie, who attended Barry's speech yesterday, said the mayor has yet to explain to the school board in detail what he has in mind.
"We don't know as much about it as we would like," she said. "We need to know what's in it before we can speculate" on the proposal's implications.
In reviewing his criminal justice program yesterday, Barry said overcrowding in the city's prison system has posed "a nearly overwhelming problem."
The District's inmate population has increased by 36 percent since 1980 and now totals 5,841--the highest in the city's history, according to Barry.
"Our resource constraints will not permit us to build more jails," he said. "This means that we must find other ways to manage our criminal justice system. Nonviolent offenders should be given alternatives to incarceration through community services programs, such as street and public housing repairs, and through halfway houses."
Barry's proposal to transfer some prisoners from Lorton Reformatory to halfway houses and work-release programs, which also was recommended by his transition team, is likely to draw opposition from some community groups fearing that the prisoners might commit additional crimes.
However, Police Chief Maurice T. Turner said yesterday he did not think the plan, also proposed by the transition team, would cause serious problems, provided it is limited to prisoners who were convicted of relatively minor offenses.
"I think the mayor is talking about people in the the minor-offender category," Turner said. "I have no problem with that."
Barry told the gathering, including the mayor's cabinet and members of the City Council, that the city must pay greater attention to maintaining its bridges, roads, sewers and public buildings.
"The District's infrastructure . . . like that of older cities everywhere needs much greater attention than it has received," he said. "Most federal highway funds will be devoted to repair rather than new construction."
Barry said that work would begin this year on a proposed $34 million project to replace the city's traffic signal control system, which was installed in the early 1950s.
The federally funded project would replace outmoded and often unpredictable traffic lights at 1,300 intersections with a new, state-of-the-art synchronized system, according to Thomas Downs, the city's director of transporation and public works.
Downs said work on the system probably will begin this fall, when plans and analysis are complete.