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“She opened this back up! She opened this conversation back up!”
So crowed Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. in a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the John A. Wilson Building. Thomas, along with colleagues Marion Barry and Michael A. Brown, stood in high dudgeon over Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s latest controversial comments.
“I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school,” Rhee had told the little-known Fast Company magazine—comments that got quickly e-mailed around town last Thursday, blossoming into a full-blown weekend to-do.
Rhee indeed may have opened the conversation back up, but it was clear from a look around the council hearing room on Tuesday just who was keeping it going. The seats were filled with Rhee foes—irate at not just her school reform attempts but the intemperate way she tends to go about them.
Her magazine comments allowed councilmembers a second bite at an apple that had tasted awfully good to them the first time around. On Oct. 2, the D.C. Public Schools laid off 266 educators, a move that set up a council-chancellor showdown that actually won legislators a rare scalp: DCPS finance chief Noah Wepman made his exit after admitting he hadn’t told his bosses about overspending.
The first time around, the debate was seriously undersexed, it turns out.
Corporal punishment—yeah, that’s bad in any modern school system. And no one can get behind absenteeism, either. Yet nothing incites outrage quite like allegations of child sex abuse, especially via what sounded like a tossed-off set of comments to Fast Company, of all outlets. And so the municipal question machine raged: Why did a teacher who had sex with children have to be fired for budget reasons? Were the proper authorities notified, as required by law? Were other children in contact with this alleged pervert? What did Rhee know and when did she know it?
Answers didn’t come until late Monday, when Rhee explained to WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood that a single DCPS teacher had been accused of “sexual misconduct” and placed on administrative leave while police investigated. While the teacher was under police investigation, he or she was laid off. Rhee declined Tuesday to share any further details about the case.
In an interview, Rhee tells LL that the Fast Company interview wasn’t the first time she had mentioned the sexual misconduct. “I got interviewed for weeks straight all about the layoffs,” she says. “I rattled some of those things off.”
Perhaps Rhee did; perhaps she didn’t. LL, in a cursory search just before press time, wasn’t able to find any earlier references to sex accusations. In any case, if she did mention them, no one noticed.
But now they have, and one thing is clear: Rhee and her Wilson Building overlords did themselves no favors by waiting several days to provide any context for the quote. What could have been put to rest in Saturday’s Washington Post persisted until Wednesday and beyond, thanks to the “we’ll get back to you”s and “that’s a personnel matter”s regularly wielded by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s press shop.
The silent treatment gave license to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who in a Monday WTOP interview demanded that Rhee “name names”—a suggestion that Rhee called “a little silly,” seeing as it “would be breaking every personnel rule in the book.”
Personnel law is one thing; criminal law’s another. The U.S. attorney’s office could not confirm its involvement in any case involving sexual misconduct in the D.C. Public Schools. The Washington Teachers’ Union says it was not aware of any teacher facing such charges.
The scant details from officialdom prompted Tuesday’s epic grandstand. Barry, who called the press conference, kicked things off: “I think the public is tired of the councilmembers promising this, promising that. We need some action!” He went on to do nothing of the sort, aside from calling for another hearing. Perhaps there’s another Rhee aide to fire?
Thomas took an interesting stand, arguing that the nine teachers accused of misconduct shouldn’t have been laid off, but instead fired through the normal, exhaustive processes. Which, of course, would have meant that nine other teachers would have gotten the budgetary ax. He finished by calling on Rhee to provide “other evidentiary evidence” to prove her allegations.
Brown took the opportunity to repeat what’s sure to become a campaign chorus, if not in 2010, certainly in the years beyond: “Reform the reform!” Added Brown, “From today’s actions, and the last couple of days, clearly it is not working.”
Of course, the councilmembers weren’t the only folks who tried to spin the incident. In an interview Tuesday, Rhee said she hoped it shined some light on how difficult it can be to fire a teacher through nonbudgetary means for stuff like corporal punishment, and, yes, having sex with a kid—you know, getting rid of the onerous contractual provisions she’s tried to combat.
“I think it’s something we should talk about,” she says.
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What was clear from this latest blowup is that there’s going to be plenty of talking, and that seems to be fine for the good councilmembers from a political standpoint: “I think she should stay here and take the heat,” Barry said Tuesday. “Leaving is easy, but staying here is gonna be tough. Some of us are gonna keep the pressure on.”
Recall the Recall?
Attention ABFers: A Fenty recall movement is afoot.
Randy Brown, a former DCPS teacher and Capitol Hill resident, is the latest District voter to attempt the exceedingly difficult task of recalling Hizzoner. No citywide official has been recalled since Home Rule; Brown’s is the first such challenge Fenty has faced.
Brown has a history with the city government: He was one of two teachers at Deanwood’s Ron Brown Middle School who came forward to the Post last March to describe a rash of violence at their overcrowded school; Brown described how a student threw a book that struck him in the head, leaving him suffering from headaches and nausea. At the time, the school’s principal, Darrin Slade, dismissed Brown & Co. as being “disgruntled teachers in the process of being terminated.”
In his recall statement submitted in November, Brown cites a laundry list of Fenty gripes, including: “$39,000 initially billed to taxpayers for fraternity member party”; “impeding democratic process by dismantling boards and commissions”; “subverted lottery to enroll his own children in Lafayette”; and “inability to work with city council.”
But Brown is clearly most vexed about what’s happened to the District’s schools. He’s most animated when speaking about Rhee: “It’s kind of like a circus atmosphere that she’s created.…She’s a good actress, called a lot of media attention. But those are appearances. We don’t need appearances, and we don’t need showmanship.” He’d prefer a “nationally known” education expert, “not a political appointee.”
In the nearly three months since filing for the recall, Brown’s efforts have flown completely under LL’s radar. But he says that he’s gained traction all the same: “When you go out and start knocking on doors, or you walk up to someone in a parking lot, I’ve found time after time, they say, ‘Is there really a recall? We were just talking about something he did last week.’ They’re happy to see me.”
Thus far, he says he’s organized “several hundred” people for his effort, which has attracted attention from other Fenty malcontents. His recall is, and will be, the only active anti-Fenty push, because city election rules say that no official can be recalled in the first or last years of his or her term; Brown’s November filing gets him in just in time.
Question is, why waste time with a near-futile recall when the guy’s up for election in less than nine months? Says Brown, “A good teacher always uses more than one modality. You want to make sure you get the message across.…This is a direct blow to his arrogance. Let him run as a common man, not as the mayor.”
Brown has until May 17 to file some 41,665 legitimate signatures, spread out among the city’s eight wards. He estimates he’s already gathered “several thousand” John Hancocks.
• So you’re a fiscally conservative D.C. resident. You now have to pay a nickel a pop for your grocery bags. You hate having to feed a bloated, overreaching local government $.05 or more every time you go shopping. And you would never consider one of those hippy-dippy NPR totes.
The D.C. Republican Committee understands your quandary! They’ve printed up several hundred reusable bags festooned with the local party logo and an admonition to bag the bag tax.
This idea sprang from the fertile mind of D.C. GOP executive director Paul D. Craney; the bags are available to anyone who wants to give a $5 contribution to the organization. “We are trying to help D.C. residents not to pay a ridiculous tax,” Craney says.
Of course, this particular form of protest has the perverse effect of aiding the protestees: The goal of the bag tax, its advocates have long said, was to get people to stop using disposable bags. If the tax receipts dip to zero, that’s the whole point.
Ward 6 Councilmember and lead tax proponent Tommy Wells says the GOP’s bag is “not surprising.”
“The Republican Party has a long tradition of not caring about the environment,” he e-mails. “Either that, or they don’t recognize a business-friendly measure when they see one. Stores are already reporting customers are using half the number of throw-away bags they used to.”
Says Craney, “Pollution is bad, but we think the tax is silly.”
• Lenwood Johnson’s still in hot water with the authorities.
Last week, LL told you about the D.C. Democratic State Committee member who admitted that he owned an unregistered handgun and was subsequently visited by D.C. police, where they performed an informal search. Last Friday afternoon, lawmen returned to Johnson’s Columbia Heights apartment, this time with a warrant.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he wasn’t home at the time. Police broke down his door and tossed his apartment. In keeping with Johnson’s pledge to obey local gun laws, the cops didn’t find a weapon.
According to a document left by police, they didn’t leave completely empty-handed: They took proof of residence and a packet of gun registration materials he’d picked up from police headquarters. So now, Johnson says, his efforts to legally register his weapon (the whereabouts of which he is not disclosing) have been set back.
Johnson says he also noticed another couple of items missing, and he blames police for their disappearance: a $10 bill, which he intended for his laundry, and a bottle of cologne—Givenchy Gentleman, to be precise.
“It’s one of my favorites,” Johnson says of the cologne. “I hope [the police] pay for the door and give me back my $10 in laundry money and my bottle of cologne.”
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