Five D.C. Council members sent Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) a letter last week expressing their dismay that the mayor urged Congress to cap fees paid to attorneys representing schoolchildren seeking services from the District's troubled special education program.

Williams had asked Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to add a provision to the District's fiscal 2000 budget bill that would cap these attorneys' fees at $50 an hour. The city, Williams argued, wants to "direct more of the limited special education budget to programs for children and less to lawyers," claiming that the cap would save up to $12 million in the next year.

But the five members of the council's education committee--Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large)--told Williams they fear the cap would unfairly limit the rights of poor families to get quality legal representation for their children.

Fees are paid by the city only in cases in which disabled children have proven they have been inappropriately denied services or assistance they are entitled to under federal law. The council members note that the budget plan endorsed by the mayor and council this past spring specifically called for an end to the cap on lawyers' fees.

"In the name of consensus, honest government and fairness to children, we hereby ask you to retract your June 30th letter," the council members' letter says. "Your position is not only at odds with this council's stated position, but is diametrically opposed to the consensus budget."

Ambrose, in a separate letter to Williams, called the cap "a new low in deliberately engineered injustice."

"I get chills every time I think of the little boy, a wheelchair-bound student at River Terrace Elementary School, who because the school refused to work with advocates to adjust the stall doors and fittings in the boys' bathroom . . . had to lower himself from his chair to the floor of the bathroom and slither across the floor to the commode, several times a day all school year," Ambrose's letter to Williams says. "The attorneys who represented this little boy have not been paid for their services and see no way they can continue to serve any more children under the fee cap."

The cap language is buried deep within the 61-page conference report pending before the House and Senate. President Clinton has threatened to veto the District $4.7 billion budget in part because of the cap, a fact that the council members note in their Aug. 9 letter to the mayor.

Williams's press secretary, Peggy Armstrong, said the mayor is preparing a response to the council members but remains convinced that the money should be spent on improved special education services and not legal bills.

Superintendent Secrets

She can't help bossing people around, loves to shop till she drops, and will walk a country mile to eat some barbecue.

Who would say such things about Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the D.C. public school system? Her friend and deputy, Elois Brooks, who unceremoniously and unexpectedly exposed her buddy's secret habits before hundreds of principals, teachers and others at a leadership conference.

To big laughs, Brooks introduced Ackerman to the crowd during the opening session, not with a speech about her professional accomplishments but with juicy details about Ackerman's life.

The D.C. schools' chief can't finish lunch without a chocolate chip cookie, for example, and finds it natural to boss everybody around because, it seems, she was always bullying her younger brothers.

"That's where she got this attitude of bossing us around," Brooks said.

Ackerman's favorite hobby is shopping, her second favorite is shopping and so is her third. Ask her where she likes to go on vacation, and she will say Neiman Marcus.

And, it turns out, it pays to be a good friend of Ackerman's, because she gives away some of her purchases. In fact, Brooks was wearing an Ackerman castoff, a lovely cream suit.

As the two women passed each other on the stairs after Brooks's introduction, Ackerman jokingly demanded the suit back.