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For Republican functionaries, 2009 sucks.
With Democrats taking the Oval Office and expanding majorities in both houses of Congress last year, GOP political appointees and Hill staffers alike have fled the city. Smith Point’s list is a touch easier to infiltrate; Tortilla Coast isn’t quite as crowded at happy hour. Most Republicans have headed back to rosier redoubts, nursing private-sector careers or running for the state legislator job they’ve always wanted.
But the city maintains one unexpected GOP refuge: the District government. To be precise, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).
OSSE? What’s that—the city office that handles faith-based initiatives?
Actually, it’s the District’s state-level education authority, with responsibility for setting standards and overseeing accountability at charter and traditional public schools. And in recent months, it has seen an influx of refugees from George W. Bush’s education department.
Start with the state superintendent herself, Kerri Briggs. She spent virtually the entire Bush administration there, rising from an analyst working on No Child Left Behind to spending nearly two years as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under Margaret Spellings.
At her May confirmation hearing, Briggs had to withstand a heated line of questioning from At-Large Councilmember (and former Republican) David A. Catania, who demanded to know just how much Karl Rove strategizing and John Ashcroft moralizing he should expect from Briggs—a native, like Bush, of the dusty West Texas oil town of Midland. Her answer: none.
But what about the raft of deputies she’s hired since?
As her chief of staff, Briggs hired Catherine Freeman, who had spent five years at the U.S. Department of Education, rising to a deputy assistant secretary position. Her communications and outreach director is Chad Colby, who held a job as deputy assistant secretary for media affairs in the Bush education department (and also did time as a press aide for the Republican National Committee). The assistant superintendent for elementary and secondary education, a key deputy role, is held by Cathie Carothers, a federal veteran who headed the Office of Indian Education in Bush’s last year. Jessica Morffi, who spent almost four years in Bushland as a policy adviser, now serves as the chief liaison between Briggs and the State Board of Education. Patrick Rooney, a career federal education analyst, is now an OSSE management analyst. And William Knudsen, a political appointee who directed the Office of Special Education Programs, is now working on special-ed projects for Briggs.
To be fair, under Bush, the education department was rarely considered a hotbed of ideological fury. Its signature policy innovation—No Child Left Behind, the rigorous system of testing benchmarks and accountability measures—stands to be in place for years to come, and Barack Obama’s administration hasn’t gone out on a limb to say it should be trashed.
To be even fairer, the District’s educational apparatus has been on the federal government’s shitlist for years. Under the Bush administration in 2006, the District’s public schools were deemed a “high risk” for federal funding due to mismanagement—a status the District shares only with American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and which puts D.C. at a disadvantage in competing for federal money, including stimulus funds. Who better than Briggs & Co.—on the inside when that decision was made—to get the schools back on the straight and narrow? As Briggs puts it in an e-mail: “We were lacking people who had deep insight into federal compliance…We’ve brought in individuals with broad knowledge of federal laws and requirements.”
And there’s this point made by Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor of education: “I think being able to bring good people with you is a mark of a good manager,” he says. “They have very good résumés. They know what they’re doing.”
Even so! Think about the history of the D.C. schools, which for the longest time were an employment repository for political cronies—Democratic political cronies, not Republican ones.
When informed that Briggs had hired additional Bushies, Catania dropped his head into his hands. “They used to go to the National Republican Institute,” he said, referring to the foreign-affairs think tank. “Now they go to the Office of the State Superintendent.”
Catania, however, declined to play bulldog on the issue.
“There’s nothing that’s happened so far that’s given me reason to be concerned,” he says. “As long as she doesn’t set up an ideological think tank, I’m not too worked up about it. If there were evidence of an ideological bent out of step with our city, then I’d have to sit down with Ms. Briggs and discuss her plans for the city.”
Concerns about Briggs in the body politic right now have less to do with her partisan motives and more to do with just how much of a toady she plans to be for the Mayor Adrian M. Fenty/Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee reform axis.
Take the recent wrangling over the State Board of Education. The D.C. Council proposed moving the panel, meant to serve in an advisory role on Districtwide standards, out from under the state superintendent’s supervision; that met with strong disapproval from Fenty and Rhee, who saw it as a first move toward weakening mayoral control of the public schools.
But members of the State Board say there are reasons why the independence was necessary—last year, the council gave the board money to hire new staff members, but when the board went to fill the positions, it was told by the mayor’s office that the money was gone.
State Board members attest to having had a good relationship with former State Superintendent Deborah Gist, who left for Rhode Island amid reports that she clashed with higher-ups. Board members, for the most part, loved Gist—saying she was inclusive and committed to outreach. Briggs, they have yet to warm up to.
Lisa Raymond, the Ward 6 rep who is president of the board, says Briggs is still trying “to find a way for the board to be involved in her work.…I don’t want to write her off yet, but I’m hopeful we can find a way to move forward together.”
“Deborah would alert us when she was going to visit a school or participate in a panel and invite State Board members along.…I found that it helped as a policymaker,” says Mary Lord, the Ward 2 representative on the board. “I don’t get a sense [from Briggs] that there’s a lot of comfort or even time or interest in doing that sort of out-in-the-streets meet and greet.…It may be because she is up to her neck in alligators trying to put out her next fire.”
Ted Trabue, the board’s at-large member and vice chair, notes that the OSSE staff’s political background has its positives: “If these people are well-steeped in No Child Left Behind, they can provide us with some expertise which we didn’t have before. Republican, Democrat, or Socialist, it’s still the law of the land.”
And where Gist “had a focus where she really wanted to engage people, Kerri really has a focus on getting as many federal dollars in here as possible and spending them,” Trabue says, “which is great and whichis what we have to do.”
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who has taken the lead oversight role on educational matters, says he’ll also be taking a close look at OSSE initiatives to “ensure [their] consistency with our progressive philosophy.”
“This is a city that overwhelmingly supported President Obama,” says Gray. “It is a bit odd, on educational issues, that we would bring in people from a presidential administration that could hardly be considered successful.”
• Ever since Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted “You lie!” at President Obama earlier this month, folks across the land have been decrying the lack of civility and respect in Washington’s political quarters.
That includes the John A. Wilson Building, apparently. Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander tells LL that she was not extended her due courtesy recently.
The occasion was a city hall protest last week, where Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten brought dozens of supporters to protest the slashing of council earmarks—of which his group has been a prime beneficiary.
Outside the Wilson Building, Alexander says Moten & Co. got in her face about the cuts to the fiscal 2010 budget. Alexander says she had a retort: “I said, ‘What are you arguing for? You’ve never had a shortage of any funding.’” She added: “Your well has run dry.”
To that, Moten did not react well: “You’re trash!” Alexander recalls being told at least three times with Moten’s finger in her face.
In an interview, Moten admits to comparing his councilmember to refuse: “She was acting like a piece of trash,” the Ward 7 resident says. “She wasn’t acting like a councilmember.”
In Moten’s telling, it’s Alexander who needs to improve her manners: “She was talking to the people like nobodies. ‘I don’t like people who drop out of school. I don’t like people who stand on corners.’” In fact, he says, “I’m debating whether or not I’m going to press charges against her for grabbing my finger.”
Afterward, Jauhar Abraham, the Peaceoholics CEO and Moten’s partner, called Alexander to set up a meeting to squash the beef. She wasn’t having it. “I said, ‘You have to apologize publicly,’” she says. “I don’t know that I’d even accept that. The damage has already been done.”
Says Moten, “I will apologize to her if she apologizes for the way she talked about her constituents.”
• At some point, believe it or not, Marion Barry will no longer be Ward 8 councilmember. But what then?
Last Saturday saw a glimpse of who might be Ward 8’s future: Jacque Patterson deposed former councilmember Sandy Allen as chair of the Ward 8 Democrats, positioning himself nicely for future politicking.
Both Allen and Patterson have had their ups and downs with Barry, the gorilla of ward politics. Allen, of course, was pushed out of her seat in 2004 by Barry, only to join the Barry camp, helping run his re-election campaign last year. Patterson, a former staffer for Anthony Williams who now works as a project manager for the Federal City Council, also ran unsuccessfully against Barry in 2004, but got back in the mayor-for-life’s good graces for a 2006 school board run (also unsuccessful) against William Lockridge. (Barry says he did not take sides in the Dems’ race.)
So is this the first move in the Patterson 2012 campaign? “I have been asked that since I first started [campaigning],” Patterson says. “Me and the councilmember are very good friends, and I don’t have any plans right now to run for anything.”
In the meantime, Patterson says he’s focused on bringing young folks into the ward organization’s fold, and he’s promising to raise eyebrows: “We’re gonna take on some issues that people don’t want to touch.…Politicians that come to Ward 8 promising one thing or another, they need to be held accountable.”
“It’s gonna be fun now,” he says.
• Still wondering how Fenty’s twin sons ended up attending top-performing Lafayette Elementary School? So is LL.
The Washington Post reported in a cryptic Sept. 2 editorial that Rhee, “using a process employed for other families in similar circumstances,” moved the twins because “Mr. Fenty’s neighborhood school, West Elementary, has only one fourth-grade class. Most studies show that twins, particularly if they are of the same gender, should be in separate classes for both learning and social development.”
Hence the twins ended up at Lafayette, with its four fourth-grade classes.
LL has poked some holes in that explanation: No fewer than 12 DCPS schools closer to the Fenty home than Lafayette offer multiple fourth-grade classes.
Nor is it at all clear that the transfer process has been “employed for other families in similar circumstances.” LL asked the DCPS communications office last month to provide an accounting of occasions where Rhee has used her discretionary transfer authority; the school system is making LL wait on a Freedom of Information Act request.
In other words, there’s still no assurance that Fenty didn’t leverage his office into special treatment. If the Post explanation holds water, very well. But, in that case, Lafayette had best get ready for a whole bunch of twins.
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