When Marion Barry decided to run in 2004 for the council seat he now holds, he submitted this rationale for returning to public service: “Ward 8 needs a fighter,” he told supporters at his campaign kickoff.
But what kind of fighter? A Che Guevara–esque insurgent? A Douglas MacArthur–type “old soldier”?
Nope: “I’m going to become the Paul Revere of a lot of things around here,” he says. “Sound the alarm, that’s what Paul Revere did. The British are coming! Wake up, folks!”
In this version of the midnight ride, the Redcoat part is being played by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Rather than a musket, she carries her draft “five-year action plan” for the D.C. Public Schools. That’s an 80-page document unveiled in October outlining Rhee’s strategic vision “to create the best urban school district in the country and to close the achievement gap that persists along racial and socioeconomic lines.”
The document, produced by Rhee’s “transformation management” office, is heavy on biz-school lingo and consultant-speak—the stuff that’s Rhee’s native language and the stuff LL can’t read much of before his eyes gloss right over: “Throughout the system, innovative partnerships will engage the broader community in increasing educational options for students and playing an active, cooperative role in.…” Snooze! Barry, on the other hand, says he’s examined the document closely—he read to LL from a well-annotated bound copy of the plan—and he’s none too happy with what he’s read.
The schools plan, in fact, was the only issue Barry wanted to speak to LL about in an hourlong interview. And that’s saying something. Opening up to LL marks a shocking, unilateral rapprochement in the longstanding freeze-out Barry’s held against writers of this column and other Washington City Paper reporters—a fact he was not shy about pointing out. “I compare me talking to you like Nixon going to China,” Barry says. “Like Nixon going to China—you know, you don’t expect it.”
Such a drastic move only goes to show that the mayor-for-life, like council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and other councilmembers, is desperate to avoided being sidelined from school reform. It’s a logical goal for a smart politician, considering the schools command an $800 million budget and reforming them is the centerpiece of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s governing strategy.
Back to the chancellor’s plan—Barry chooses to explain its inadequacies thusly: “It’s a good plan for a school district like Montgomery County, Fairfax County, or some other middle- or upper-income community in Long Island someplace,” Barry says, “but not for D.C. The writer of this proposal, I don’t know who they were, but the writing style and the writing of this proposal indicates that they don’t understand the culture or the subculture of D.C.”
And just so there was no confusing what he meant by that, Barry proceeds to give a racial breakdown of the DCPS student population. “This plan,” he concludes, “does not at all look at the demographics of the 45,000 students in the D.C. public school system.”
In a wide-ranging chat, Barry seemed to channel former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, a school-system wonk if ever there was one. He reminded LL how many kids in the system have been touched by violent crime. (“Ask how many of them know somebody who’s been shot and killed, 95 percent of the hands go up. You can’t tell me that trauma doesn’t have an impact on learning.”) He railed against the quality of food in school cafeterias. (“In Montgomery County, in Fairfax, they won’t tolerate a certain kind of food being served. But here people don’t know the difference; they just tolerate that nonsense.”) He described a lack of black male role models. (“There has to be a very specific emphasis on trying to hire, at the elementary school level, African-American men, so that these boys come to school in the first grade and they see some positive role models.”)
All of those things, Barry says, need to be addressed in the plan, which, as it stands, focuses on six big-picture areas—things like “Great People,” “Data-Driven Decisions,” an “Engaged Community,” among others: “I’m just saying there were another two dozen things she should have taken into consideration.”
Insensitivity to issues of “culture and subculture” wasn’t the only thing Barry seizes upon. He took special care to note that the document made no mention whatsoever of athletic programs—a glaring oversight, indeed.
But, apropos of insensitivities, Barry then ventures an explanation: “I’ll tell you why it’s not in here. Because it was written by a female. Advocated by a female. Hadn’t thought about that, had you?”
No, LL replied, he hadn’t thought about that.
He did point out to Barry that DCPS athletic programs have seen great advances in recent months. Allen Lew’s school facilities department has opened several new football fields; Rhee fired longtime athletic director Allen Chin and replaced him with Troy Mathieu, a well-regarded athletic administrator from Grambling State University in Louisiana.
“That’s like putting a Band-Aid on an open sore, that’s all it’s doing,” Barry says. “What you need is a tourniquet to stop the blood, and if you only spent $5 [million] or $6 million out of a billion-dollar budget on athletics.”
Conversation also touched upon Rhee’s efforts to oust bad teachers from DCPS schools—including her recent push to put hundreds of teachers on 90-day improvement plans, a first step toward firing.
“She doesn’t know what in the hell she’s talking about,” Barry said, calling the current teacher evaluation system worthless. He then reached back to his tenure as school board chair, from 1973 to 1975: “We had a fairly decent and efficient evaluation process, and therefore you could say this and that.…she has no data to support her contention.”
LL, through a spokesperson, offered Rhee the opportunity to rebut Barry’s charges. She did not reply.
The substance of Barry’s comments to LL—if not their stridence—echoes statements he’s made for months in council hearings. But what explains his rat-a-tat-tat treatment of Rhee?
Look at it this way: On her side, Rhee has the mayor, the president of the United States, Capitol Hill, the Washington Post editorial board, high-minded news and policy magazines, the Federal City Council crowd, most liberal education pundits, most conservative education pundits, and middle-class parents. On the other side, you have teachers unions, some local education activists, and a cadre of parents and residents alienated by her “consensus is overrated” style. The only organ they have that can check Rhee is the D.C. Council.
In other words, there’s a political vacuum to be filled. And, as hard as Gray, Kwame Brown, and Harry Thomas Jr. may try, no one fills a political vacuum in this town like Marion Barry. Nothing on the public agenda right now suits his never-ending quest for attention and relevance like being Rhee’s opposition.
Still the savviest politician in any room he enters, Barry took aim at one of Rhee’s few soft spots—her image as being heavy on media adulation but light on results: “If I don’t say anything about this…the chancellor will go off reading her comments in Time magazine and all these other places. It ain’t all that. Rhetoric is good, but reality—what you do—is important.”
But another motive might be to soften up Fenty, which Barry does by depicting himself as the elder statesman wooed by the hungry candidate’s earnest promises and now scorned. “We went to lunch eight, nine times…trying to get me to support him. He impressed me with his desire to make education his No. 1 priority. I thought that was what we needed to do. I told him I wanted to be a part of that dialogue.”
After the election, Barry says, he told Fenty to make school-reform legislation the first bill sent to the council. It was, and Barry says he immediately went to bat for Hizzoner.
“When he sent it over [to the council], there were only about three of us, four at the most, who supported it,” he says. “I worked awfully hard with a couple of other people on the council to get us to the point where 11 of us voted for it.”
Barry says that Fenty has kept his promise to make education his top priority. As for any assurances that the mayor-for-life would be made a part of his plans?
“Most of us have been left out,” he says, complaining about “after-the-fact type of situations”—where councilmembers were told about issues, such as school closings, after decisions had already been made.
Asked whether he saw a lack of respect from Fenty, Barry won’t take the bait: “I don’t want us to get off on that right now.”
Barry does say, without equivocation, that he stands by his vote for the mayoral schools takeover and for Rhee’s confirmation as chancellor.
Then LL asked Barry whether he had confidence in Rhee to come up with a satisfactory final five-year plan.
Says Barry, “I got more confidence in this community’s ability to analyze, as I’m doing, and insist on a change.”
The Social Contract
LL did manage to get Barry to open up about one other issue: His practice, in place since this summer, of filing disapproval resolutions on numerous city contracts submitted to the council (“The Old Gray Mayor,” 11/28/08).
Those resolutions have, for the most part, been little more than an annoyance for the mayor’s office. But late last month, one of the disapproval resolutions filed by Barry came close to having more momentous consequences.
On Dec. 23, Barry objected to a series of four contracts providing health insurance for District employees. Each contract exercised an “option year” on contracts that the council had already approved in prior years. Problem was, the contracts were set to expire at midnight Dec. 31, and the council was on holiday recess and could not address the matter.
To hear Attorney General Peter J. Nickles tell it, some 21,000 D.C. employees would have been left uninsured if the contracts were not approved—a “catastrophic impact.”
So Nickles posted a letter to Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi saying: Pay them anyway. Nickles reasoned that the action didn’t require council approval since the underlying contracts had already been ratified.
In a conversation with LL, Nickles called Barry’s contract holds “irresponsible and unacceptable.” He said he has been trying to meet with Barry about the rash of disapprovals for some time with no success.
Says Barry—whose political sparring with Nickles goes back to when he was mayor and the litigator was often suing the city—“You know Peter does me a favor when he goes off half-cocked.”
He took the opportunity to explain the reasoning behind his obstructionist ways—to call attention, he says, to a broken procurement system. “The situation,” he says, “has gotten worse under Mayor Fenty than it was under [Mayor Anthony A. Williams].”
In the case of the health care contracts, he says, “what should have happened, the mayor should have had these contracts over here 45, 60 days before Dec. 31.…If I
had not come into work on the 23rd—which I did—I would have missed it. That’s not fair.”
In any case, the insurance contracts were never in danger of expiring, Barry says, because he lifted his hold before Dec. 31 at Gray’s request: “The chairman asked me about it. I said, ‘All right, no problem!’”
What can Fenty do to stop the chronic disapprovals? Barry said he needs to fix the procurement process. “Make it work!” he said. “Follow the law!”
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