Late last year, the business community signed off on a temporary tax on larger District companies to finance a state-of-the-art baseball stadium. The lure of baseball—and possible economic benefits it might bring—prompted otherwise fiscally conservative business lobbyists to endorse the revenue-raising effort.
Now the city is looking for some money to turn its schools into state-of-the-art facilities. It’s funny how quickly the business community has rediscovered its aversion to taxes.
When it comes to the D.C. public schools, business talks a good game. For years, leaders at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the Federal City Council have identified overhauling the city’s pitiful school system as key to a vibrant D.C. economy. During the baseball debate, lobbyists for these groups even said that the baseball tax might drain away funds for future school-revitalization efforts. “Education is our No. 1 issue,” says D.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Lang.
And the No. 1 issue in education these days is leaky roofs and grotty bathrooms. Everyone—the D.C. Council, the school board, activists, and business leaders—concurs that meaningful progress can’t be made in school buildings that are falling apart. Schools officials have placed the price tag for system-wide renovations at $1 billion.
Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation Chair Kathy Patterson last week sought to get a jump on potential opponents in her campaign for council chair by pushing a new tax for the proposed upgrades. Specifically, Patterson on Oct. 18 attempted to push through her five-member committee a measure to boost taxes on hotel rooms, cigarettes, and parking. The measure also would have delayed planned income-tax cuts.
The business lobby descended on the council chambers as Patterson was performing her legislative handiwork. The suits had an opening: Patterson had unwisely rolled out her Ms. Fix-It financing plan with little notice, no public hearing, and no consultation with business groups. She figured there was plenty of time to revise the plan before the full council took it up. “There were lots of possibilities for funding this,” Patterson says. “None of them is a good option. I came up with something that could get three votes,” to move the proposal to the full council and keep the momentum for school modernization going.
She thought her votes were in the bag. Instead, she got creamed at the committee meeting. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. had heard from his business pals. “I suspect there is no one in this room as supportive of the schools as I am,” said the Education Committee member. But Barry would not back Patterson’s plan because “there was not a hearing on this specific proposal.” Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray had already told activists that he supported Patterson but also thought it more prudent to delay a vote on matter. Patterson pulled her bill, and council sources say the tax plan now resides in the trash bin.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who also sits on the panel, saw the deep-sixing of Patterson’s bill as a serious setback for the school-facilities effort. “What so often happens is everyone agrees what the need is, but it falls apart when it comes to really doing the heavy lifting necessary to get there,” he said.
The industrialists insist that Patterson’s taxes would have taken a toll on the local tourism industry. Also, they say they would be more willing to help if leaders enrolled them in the planning: “What Mrs. Patterson did was just blindside a lot of people,” says Lang. “This is not the type of leadership you want.”
Business groups bristle at the notion that opposition to a quickly drafted tax plan signals a lack of support for fixing schools. “Public schools and education is at the top of the agenda for all of us,” says John Hill, CEO of the Federal City Council.
Hill rattles off a long list of business-led school-reform efforts:
•Top business leaders play a key role in the DC Education Compact—a nonprofit advisory group to the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) administration. Parents, education advocates, DCPS staff, and elected officials have been giving Superintendent Clifford B. Janey feedback ever since he rode into town.
•During the late ’80s, the Federal City Council produced a bevy of school-improvement recommendations at the behest of then-Mayor Barry. Check the last 15 years of poor school performance to see how that worked out.
•The hotel and restaurant industry helps to sponsor the Marriott Hospitality Public Charter High School. Other businesses sponsor individual schools, and some have lent managers to the school system to improve operations.
•In 2000, business leaders offered to help then-school Superintendent Paul Vance carry out a school-modernization strategy. He told them the bureaucracy could handle it. The bathrooms are still broken.
Time and brain power are wonderful, but unless Abe Pollin and Doug Jemal are prepared to start hauling around plaster and shingles, the city needs money. And at a time when more than half of the council is seeking re-election or considering a run for higher office, proposals for funding a school-renovation plan are coming in rapid succession. Ward 4 Councilmember and mayoral candidate Adrian Fenty has offered a bill to use lottery revenues to fund school modernization. His chief rival in the 2006 mayoral sweepstakes, council Chairman Linda Cropp, put new money in the fiscal 2006 budget for school improvements. She’s planning to offer her own modernization bill. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who may run for council chair, has weighed in with a plan to put school facilities at the front of the line for any surplus tax revenue.
Business leaders say they won’t be steamrolled by the pressures of a very early 2006 political season. “We can’t allow the politics to take over good, sound public policy,” Lang says. For this particular lobby, that means walking down a well-worn no-new-taxes path. “I know the advocates feel very strongly. But if they want something at the end of the day, we all need to work together.”
Don’t count on it.
School advocates say the death of Patterson’s bill exposes the business community’s real stripes.
Marc Borbely, with the grass-roots group Fix Our Schools, wants more from the Chamber crowd. “You can talk all you want,” he says. “It’s great that they are talking, but that doesn’t cut it. There is no time to wait. Now is the political moment. We have a bunch of councilmembers running for higher office, and they are not going to wait.”
“[Business leaders] have wonderful ideas about how to improve the schools,” says Iris Toyer, chair of Parents United for the D.C. Schools. But she calls their efforts over the years piecemeal. “They never seem to bring a big- picture idea. Consequently, when they are called upon to fill the void, they are like, ‘You are always trying to tax us.’”
A ton of cash will flow out of downtown and into political campaigns. Councilmembers will get an earful about how new taxes are not the answer to the school-facilities problem. Innovative, no-tax school-funding proposals will be plentiful.
But advocates pushing the council on school modernization won’t concede anything to the powerful business lobby. “They’ve got the money, but we’ve got the votes,” says Borbely. “We have 147 schools with thousands of parents. We are getting those parents involved, and near each school there are thousands of people who want to send their kids to the city schools.”
“The stars have aligned,” says Toyer. “Now it’s time to press people, to lock them into some things now.”
So where does Janey stand on all of this? Well, business reps claim he’s on their side; advocates insist he’s on theirs. Janey himself has never taken a position on how the city should come up with the cash. School officials did not return calls for comment.
Either way, the superintendent’s facilities plan will be out in the spring, and business types say that it makes no sense to rush through a funding mechanism without that document. “I would hope that they would listen to the man that they hired a year ago and is charged with running [the schools],” says Lang. “Clearly, we all want to do the right thing.”
Contrary to popular belief, says Lang, business hasn’t signed on to any no-new-taxes pledge when it comes to schools. “In the end, if we gotta pony up some dollars, I’m sure we can rally folks around that.”
JACK IS PISSED
Note to readers: Henceforth all comments from Evans will come from public statements. Evans has cut LL off over a 2-month-old column about the councilmember’s political action committee (PAC)—the D.C. Fund. When LL called Evans this week with further questions on the PAC, the councilmember’s response didn’t exactly suggest détente: “Don’t ever call me again,” Evans said. “Have I made myself clear? I don’t ever want to hear your voice coming through the line again. Don’t call me again, or I will take appropriate action.”
Evans may have good reason to be testy. Back in August, LL wrote that the councilmember had used PAC money raised from well-heeled political backers to pay for sporting tickets and travel expenses. A prior column explored a PAC reimbursement for expenses related to a 2004 trip to China. Shortly after the August column hit the streets, the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance launched an audit of Evans’ PAC. OCF Auditor Renee Coleman-Bunn says the audit had nothing to do with press reports or inquiries but was prompted by the OCF’s desire to take a closer look at the D.C. Fund. Evans is fully cooperating.
Three stories on Page A1 of the Washington Post this month explored the sort of issues that the OCF audit was delving into—namely, that Evans maintained personal control of the PAC funds, including check-writing privileges, which the OCF has told Evans is a no-no. The Post also reported that the city had reimbursed Evans for his expenses on the China trip and that his PAC indirectly defrayed about $6,700 in travel expenses for his friend Marsha Ralls, a Georgetown art-gallery owner. (Evans did not return calls from the Post about the last two PAC stories.) The councilmember maintains that he has done nothing outside of the bounds of D.C.’s campaign-finance regulations.
The controversy has put Evans’ plans to run for council chair in limbo. Coleman-Bunn says the audit should be completed “in about a month.” That should give Evans plenty of time to assess the damage, if any, from the PAC flap and gauge his support for a chair run.
Evans’ tight-lipped press policy prevented LL from asking him a question on the minds of lots of D.C. political geeks: Why would a guy who earned $262,520 in 2004—Evans’ 2004 financial-disclosure statement showed he earned $170,000 from his part-time gig at the Patton Boggs law firm; his council salary is $92,520—pay for his friend’s travel with PAC funds?—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.