One morning each week, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams goes to school.
It may be Eastern Senior High School in Northeast Washington or Garfield Elementary in Southeast. The scenery changes, but as Williams (D) walks the hallways with principals, peeks into classrooms and answers questions from students, the themes do not:
Roofs that leak. Bathrooms with overflowing toilets and no stall doors. Run-down playgrounds. Students complaining about bad teachers. Teachers bemoaning the antiquated labs, outdated computers and broken windows in their classrooms. Principals fretting about the challenge of raising test scores with limited resources.
They are the familiar images of a broken school system. But in the days since Williams reluctantly accepted nearly $300 million in tax cuts force-fed to him by the D.C. Council, the city's crumbling schools have become Priority No. 1 for a mayor who is looking for a political rebound.
At schools across the District, Williams has been emphasizing the educational arm of a broad agenda for improving the quality of life for D.C. residents, talking about his plans to build two schools and spend millions of dollars to repair and modernize as many as 48 others.
"These are great kids, kids who are trying to learn" despite the many obstacles to doing so, said Williams, whose plans depend largely on funds the city expects to receive from the national tobacco settlement.
Williams's plans call for a $25 million technology-oriented high school to be built east of the Anacostia River and the new $10.3 million Kelly Miller Junior High School in Ward 7, both within the next three years. An additional $25 million would be spent systemwide to rebuild bathrooms, and $304 million more over six years would be used to renovate eight schools a year. The mayor has promised to improve education for students, particularly those from low-income families.
"These kids have the same hopes and aspirations and dreams everybody else does, but they don't have the facilities," he said. "The bathrooms are in horrible condition, and it soils the dignity of the kids. How can they think highly of themselves in that kind of situation?"
Williams's plans have won praise, but already there are signs that the political missteps that have hindered some of his other proposals -- namely a lack of communication between the mayor's office and the community -- might be repeated.
D.C. Board of Education members and school activists say the mayor has not fully informed them of the details of his various plans, and that as a result, his proposals don't have consensus support.
Several members of the elected school board say the mayor hasn't met with them to share his vision for D.C. schools. Without knowing more about his proposal to build a technology school east of the Anacostia River, for example, they say it is difficult to be enthusiastic about it.
Six months into Williams's term, "there has been no communication between the mayor and the board," said William Lockridge, who represents Ward 8. He said he supports a new math and science school, but would like to hear from Williams.
"I assume he will eventually speak to the school board about what he is proposing and how it will work," Lockridge said. "He hasn't done this yet. He's excluded this board, and it's like smacking us in the face."
School board President Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) said she believes Williams is on the right track, but that she also would like to hear directly from him.
"It is my hope and belief that the mayor will carry out his commitment to make education a priority," she said. "We hope we can meet with the mayor very soon to hear his vision."
D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she is "thrilled" about building a technology-oriented high school. She said the mayor discussed the idea with her before proposing it but has not yet provided details.
Currently, Ackerman is at the helm of such facilities decisions, subject to approval by an appointed trustee board and the D.C financial control board. But the elected school board will take the lead next fall in recommending building improvements to the control board as an early step in regaining the oversight role the control board revoked in 1996.
Ackerman -- who herself has been criticized as insular -- said she would want input from parents, teachers and administrators, as well as the mayor, before building such a high school. Although the mayor appropriates funding for such projects, the school system is responsible for designing and building schools.
"I guess I'm assuming that we're not going much further until we have detailed discussions," she said. "There's a lot of community discussion that has to happen."
Asked whether he is communicating with school officials, Williams said, "I try to maintain cordial relations with the school board and work with them, but basically I want to work with citizens out there in the neighborhoods and support our children in the neighborhoods as part of community building."
But some critics say Williams has failed to build the kind of community relationships that could win him friends on such political issues. Instead, they say, he has shown a knack for creating enemies when he doesn't have to by alienating people who should naturally be part of a discussion.
That was a common criticism of the way Williams handled his proposal this year to move the University of the District of Columbia from Northwest Washington to a site east of the Anacostia River. He offered the proposal without calling the president of UDC or anyone else associated with the school. Although he later dropped the plan, UDC supporters -- and many education activists -- still are wary of trusting him after that episode.
Williams education program "may be a solid proposal, but all the stakeholders should be consulted," said D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who has said the mayor should be more inclusive. "We should also make sure it fits in the overall education plan."
Other city leaders admire Williams's initiative but suggest he will have difficulty controlling school construction because of years of procurement mismanagement.
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) noted that the school board does not have a director of facilities and that in the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is helping to renovate crumbling public school buildings. She said many school windows in Ward 3 that were supposed to be repaired last year have not been fixed. "The mayor has signaled his commitment to school construction, but it's no telling when it will take place," she said. "This is a patchwork system."
Williams said he is aware of the procurement problems and that his new chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, will be addressing them.
"We're going to fix our schools," Omer said. "We're modernizing eight schools. We're going to fix roofs. There are windows that have never been repaired; we're fixing the asbestos problems, bad floors, bad bathrooms, air-conditioning and heating, and putting in modern computer system systems."
Omer said that given similar promises by D.C. politicians in the past, he knows many question whether the mayor's program will succeed.
"I understand people are skeptical," Omer said. "They have good reason to be skeptical because District residents have been let down for a long time, and promises have been broken."
But, he said, Williams's administration plans to be different. "Watch us," Omer said. "Look at us, and grade us."
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Anthony A. Williams's plans depend largely on tobacco settlement funds.
CAPTION: School official Wilma R. Harvey said Williams is on the right track.