District School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has infuriated not one, not two, but three public charter school groups in the last couple of weeks, sparking a blaze of accusations that she is trying to squelch her competition.
The first eruption came over efforts by parents from Hearst Elementary to apply for a charter, which essentially is a license granted by one of two city boards to run a tax-funded but independently operated public school.
The parent group--disgusted by school system efforts to close the tiny but top-performing Ward 3 school in 1997 and by Ackerman's placement of an unpopular principal at Hearst last year--scheduled a "pre-meeting" before a PTA meeting last week to update interested parents.
But when the new Hearst principal learned of the meeting she quashed it, saying--according to the parents--that charter schools could not be discussed on school property.
Andrea Carlson, a leader of the charter effort, called Ackerman's office to complain and says she was told by a young man who answered the phone that the ban on charter chatter came from the superintendent herself. The story circulated quickly on e-mail lists and Web sites, prompting outrage from charter advocates and Ackerman critics.
Just one thing: Ackerman denies it.
"That is not true," Ackerman said Monday, after checking with the assistant who took the phone call. He said he referred Carlson to an assistant superintendent for elementary schools.
Ackerman said there is no blanket prohibition on discussing charter schools, or anything else, in her system's buildings.
At the same time, "I could see how the principal could want it to be separate from the PTA meeting," she said. "It would be confusing to some. It would be divisive. And this is a community that just started healing."
But Ackerman sounded pretty divisive herself when asked whether she would check with the principal to see whether charter discussions were verboten at Hearst.
"If that was said . . . " Ackerman said, adding that she doubted that part of the story as much as the part that said she had confirmed the edict herself.
"These people," Ackerman said of the parents of some of her students, "just make up bald-faced lies."
The next sparring session centers around another D.C. school seeking to go charter: Paul Junior High School, which this summer won approval to convert and is supposed to reopen its doors as an independent entity next fall.
Except now Ackerman wants to put her own new program inside the building, at Eighth and Oglethorpe streets NW.
Paul is the first D.C. school to convert itself under the three-year-old charter law. To do so, it had to collect signatures supporting the change from two-thirds of parents and faculty last spring.
The charter law doesn't flat-out say schools that convert get to keep the building in which they are located. But it mentions the school giving preference to students within that attendance boundary, and charter organizers and advocates say the intent of the law is clear. Which is why they went ballistic when Ackerman sent a letter to parents at Paul and its feeder elementaries late last month, touting a new school system "arts and technology" school to open at the site next year, and asking whether they would enroll there or the potentially building-less charter school.
"If she wants to start an arts and technology program, more power to her," said Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. "Just not in that building. That building belongs to those children."
Again, Ackerman begs to differ. She says she started planning the new Paul program only after hearing from parents in the neighborhood who had counted on their children going to Paul but didn't want to take a chance on the new charter school.
Two-thirds of the students who were enrolled at Paul when the pro-charter signatures were gather last spring will have graduated by the time the charter school opens, Ackerman pointed out. She said the charter law doesn't take into account the need to provide options to incoming students from the surrounding area.
"My job is to make sure that there are choices for parents who opt to remain inside the D.C. public schools," Ackerman said. She added that she was not staking claim to the entire building and would be willing to share.
"I am very much willing to try and find a compromise solution here," she said. "In fact, I think it could be an interesting and maybe even a healthy situation. . . . It doesn't have to be either-or."
The outcry over her actions--charter parents and advocates have been calling Congress, the D.C. Council and the D.C. financial control board as well as the media--already has led Ackerman to compromise on a third issue.
She has dropped plans to place an alternative program for up to 50 middle or junior high students suspended from their schools on the third floor of the school building rented by the Hyde Public Charter School.
Hyde officials protested that the suspended students would be disruptive to their own program, which emphasizes character education and a "brother's keeper" attitude that says all students are responsible for misbehavior by any.
Besides, they said, they will need the third floor of the former Langley Junior High next year or the year after as their 240-student program expands.
Ackerman told Hyde founder Joe Gauld this week that she would find administrative space in which to locate her alternative program and would relocate the displaced offices to Hyde's third floor until it needs the space.
But the episode left her feeling bitter.
"Our children . . . are not throwaways because their parents choose to keep them in D.C. public schools," she said. "The best interest of our children was not to be embroiled in the middle of this battle."
Success in Poll
A new poll shows how solid support is for Mayor Anthony A. Williams but at the same time hints that his very high pedestal could crumble if he doesn't improve city services.
In a poll of 500 registered voters in Ward 2 taken early last month, Williams (D) has an astronomical approval rating of 90 percent, rare for a politician. Ward 2's popular council member, Jack Evans (D), scored a 75 percent approval rating. The poll was conducted for Evans by Diane Feldman, a Democratic Party consultant currently polling for presidential candidate Bill Bradley.
In another barometer of voter affection for Williams, the poll also found that almost eight of 10 people believe the city is heading in the right direction.
"He's not Marion Barry," Evans said, explaining why Ward 2 residents are so appreciative of Williams. "He's their kind of guy."
Yet Evans said there is a "disconnect" between how people feel about Williams personally and the job he's doing--the poor ratings residents give to city services is not yet affecting the mayor's performance. The poll indicated a majority of people are unhappy with the city's schools and police protection. Other services also were criticized.
Evans was a candidate for mayor last year. That said, his reading of the poll is probably on target. He says that if Williams doesn't improve some of those services in the next year or so, people will start to blame him. The approval ratings will dip. Former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly suffered that fate after being praised in her first year.
Evans, turning political consultant, has privately advised the mayor to take advantage of the strong ratings he enjoys by "taking decisive actions since people like him anyway."