It was the perfect setup for Ward 4 Councilmember and mayoral candidate Adrian Fenty.
A gaggle of television crews and a half-dozen reporters had answered his invitation to a 7:30 a.m. tour of Shepherd Elementary School on July 6. Fenty was eager to give the press a firsthand look at the facilities problems that have plagued the Ward 4 school.
The timing couldn’t have been better. A D.C. Council hearing on a Fenty bill to establish a $1 billion school-repair account was scheduled for the next day.
In an e-mail sent to media the previous morning, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Clifford B. Janey was billed as the headliner. That practically guaranteed television coverage. But that evening, at around 8 p.m., LL received a cell-phone message from a Fenty staffer saying Janey wouldn’t be in attendance. In the morning, DCPS facilities manager Cornell Brown arrived on the scene without his boss.
Fenty led reporters into a steamy classroom with rotting window frames and panes of plexiglass, where Brown ended up in a familiar but uncomfortable role: the involuntary star of a Fenty press conference. He had the choice of joining in the show or being labeled as unresponsive to the needs of children.
Shepherd parent-teacher association member Frank Borris ticked off a list of all-too-typical parental grievances: too hot in some rooms, too cold in others, half-assed temporary repair jobs that somehow count as “school modernization.” And Borris delivered the to-kill-for TV quote: “This is about how much we love the kids.”
Fenty knows the routine well. By his own account, he’s toured schools with DCPS leaders and cameras on “at least” six previous occasions. He says two of those schools have moved up on the repair list.
School officials are tired of Fenty’s stunts. Official word was that Janey had to bail on the early-morning walk-through because of an “emergency meeting.” But two DCPS staffers say Janey never intended to go to Shepherd.
DCPS Chief Business Operations Officer Tom Brady shakes his head when LL asks how school press events help in the push to repair buildings. “This is no way to do business,” he says.
Brown agrees. “I’ve been a facilities manager for 10 years in two systems,” he says, “and I was in front of a camera only twice before coming here.”
Brown obviously skipped the Fenty memo during his DCPS management orientation.
Fenty’s campaign-trail applause line has been slaying the crowds: “If we can find the money to build a new baseball stadium, surely we can find a way to fix our schools.”
The way he’s found employs a time-tested solution to fixing run-down D.C. schools: spend a lot more money. Fenty’s bill proposes using $60 million in D.C. Lottery earnings each year to finance a $1 billion bond issue.
The nearly $1 billion in tax dollars already spent on capital improvements over the past five years haven’t fixed D.C.’s crumbling schools. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to the rescue a few years back and ran through lots of cash, but the problems remain.
But Fenty fans who are frustrated by the pace of school modernization love his schtick. At the July 7 joint hearing before the Committee on Finance and Revenue and the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation, more than 40 backers of his school-modernization bill showed up to testify. They cheered after Fenty spoke and jeered when anyone questioned the wisdom of his legislation.
It was up to D.C.’s self-described “steward of the city’s finances,” Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, to spoil the party. Fenty may shine in front of the camera with an elementary-school backdrop, but the council dais is Evans’ turf.
Evans used the July 7 hearing to hammer home the idea that Fenty is a dangerous young upstart who lacks the legislative record to seek the city’s highest office.
Evans may not have packed the stands at the hearing, but he had some high-powered help: Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and City Administrator Robert Bobb. They offered a host of logical reasons why Fenty’s school bill wouldn’t work. On the surface, it was sound financial analysis, but LL offers this translation of their comments for those unfamiliar with efforts by Fenty’s critics to paint him as a legislative lightweight.
Gandhi: “To raise $1 billion in revenue bonds, the annual debt-service requirement would be roughly $130 million.”
Translation: Fenty can’t count. Gandhi figures the $60 million in lottery funds could support only a $480 million bond. As Gandhi often says, the numbers don’t lie.
Bobb: “We have to use some of our capital budget for crucial needs like recreation centers and libraries….Schools have taken up 30 percent of the city’s capital allotment since 1999.”
Translation: Fenty doesn’t see the big picture the way a big-city mayor should. Maybe his vision is obscured by all those Fenty-for-mayor yard signs.
Gandhi: “It is not wise to borrow against future revenue.”
Translation: Fenty’s desire to spend the schools out of trouble harks back to the city’s darkest days under the financial wizardry of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.
Evans: “It is just not possible for me to move this bill. It would be ruled out of order by the chairman.”
Translation: Fenty didn’t do his homework. He can’t even write a bill that conforms to the city’s long-term financial plan.
At one point, Evans even charged Fenty with misleading the public. “It is unfair to give people expectations that can’t be met,” he said.
Evans’ attacks could be dismissed as one of the first volleys in the 2006 mayoral race. Evans has always coveted the executive suite, and Fenty’s early campaign—and apparent popularity among voters—is driving him crazy.
But Bobb and Gandhi are committed public servants who know their way around a balance sheet. And they haven’t seen anything to suggest that DCPS could effectively spend a big new stack of cash.
Bobb offered up his plan: more public-private partnerships. And Gandhi thinks that the federal government should contribute more cash and that city leaders need to lobby Congress. Evans wants to make sure that DCPS can spend money wisely before opening up the treasury, particularly at a time when the system may need to mothball some schools.
Evans’ dismantling of Fenty’s bill was lost on most of the crowd at the John A. Wilson Building. Impatient parents who see dedicated funding for school buildings as the solution repeatedly hammered Evans.
Several D.C. Board of Education members were there to support Fenty’s bill, too. Victor Reinoso, who was endorsed by Fenty in 2004 and represents Wards 3 and 4 on the board, put the onus to fix bad school facilities on the council. “Does the council have the will to commit a billion dollars to school improvement?” he asked.
It’s the kind of simple message Fenty prefers, one that matches the rage of DCPS parents who will be voting in droves come 2006: “At this juncture, it is time for solutions,” he says. Fenty says he isn’t tied to his bill; he just wants to make sure school facilities are at the front of the line when new revenues are identified next year. “We are being judged by how much we are doing to turn the schools around,” he argues.
The politics surrounding school modernization will likely delay the only real fix for to the problem: closing some schools.
At the hearing, Evans said closing as many as 40 of the city’s 147 schools is the only long-term solution to crumbling buildings. Previous attempts to shutter underutilized schools generated heated protests from parents. And the city’s political leadership is unlikely to press DCPS to create a political hornet’s nest prior to the 2006 elections.
But Evans is ready to test whether the council is prepared to go along with Fenty and fix the schools at any cost. He’s scheduled a committee vote on Fenty’s bill for July 14. Council sources say Evans has the votes to kill Fenty’s bill—or at least dramatically change it to his liking before it moves to the full council.
And he’ll accept the will of his council colleagues, despite the misgivings of the city’s bean counters and opposition from Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “If I don’t move it, people will criticize me,” Evans says. “I’m just going to move the bill, and if everybody thinks it’s a great bill, then great.”
JOHNS IS READY TO MAKE THE LEAP
LL has learned that a black female former utility executive will be running for mayor. No, it’s not the second coming of Sharon Pratt.
Former Verizon executive Marie Johns is forming a campaign committee, say sources close to Johns.
These sources report that Johns has picked up committee-organizing papers from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. She’s been meeting with a variety of consultants, and after filing the proper papers, Johns plans to start raising money for her bid, these sources say.
She’ll need lots of dough to boost her almost nonexistent name recognition in the city. Johns will also have to throw off suggestions that her résumé and profile too closely resemble that of one-term mayor Pratt, who was also a utility executive, for PEPCO.
Politicos familiar with Johns say the comparison is nonsense and that once the city gets to know her, the “Pratt” issue will disappear.
Other sources close to Johns say she plans to announce her candidacy in the next few weeks, possibly before the end of the month. Johns did not return calls for comment.
Johns works for L & L Consulting, a company associated with the law firm Leftwich & Ludaway. Firm Managing Member Natalie Ludaway is chair of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Johns, a Ward 3 resident, was appointed by Mayor Williams to the board of the National Capital Revitalization Corp.
BLUE PLATE SPECIAL, WITH
A SIDE OF VOTING RIGHTS
Forget about the brain-freeze-inducing milkshakes and heaping slices of meat loaf: American City Diner owner Jeffery Gildenhorn is now serving the biggest portion of D.C. voting-rights advocacy in the city.
Gildenhorn’s 12-by-24-foot There’s No Way Like the American Way mural has long been a trademark for his upper Connecticut Avenue ’50s-style diner. The iconic billboard of Mom, Dad, two cute kids, and dog in a convertible has towered over his eatery for years. The mural was inspired by a Depression-era government art campaign to promote the good life.
For Gildenhorn, the good life should include a vote in Congress. So the smiling family is now covered by the familiar red-white-and-blue-clad Uncle Sam, pointing a finger and saying, “I want you.” Other giant text on the canvas sign reads “Help Bring Democracy to Our Capital” and “Vote for DC Voting Rights.”
“I’m a little bit too old to start marching,” says Gildenhorn, who was a longtime boxing commissioner and a feisty 1998 mayoral candidate. “I do what I can do. I donate that space to express my political feelings,” he says.
Gildenhorn says the banner cost him about $3,000; he estimates the ad space would rent for about $3,000 a month, if billboards were allowed in Friendship Heights.
The city’s largest voting-rights billboard will remain above his business “for as long as it takes,” Gildenhorn says. “We get a lot of tourists. I’m hoping that the tourists will read the sign, and it hopefully will shock them into the realization that this is not right.”
“I make it a point to be nonpolitical in my diner, as far as endorsing political candidates, because I’m in the retail business,” he continues. “But this…is an issue where I would rather be right than be a businessman.”—James Jones
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