D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz has few rivals when it comes to tough talk. Her blunt public pronouncements don’t need clarification. Her comments sometimes even send allies running for cover who should be standing by her side.
But the days of political opponents’ isolating Cafritz look to be over.
Board Vice President Carolyn Graham has joined Cafritz in a fight that will affect the safety of every D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) student: the approval of a new security firm to patrol the city’s 167 schools. You know, the rent-a-cops who stand by the schools’ metal detectors and keep parents, teachers, and students from spitting on each other—and much worse. Specifically, Graham, a former Cabinet member for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, is teaming up with Cafritz to challenge the selection of D.C.-based Hawk One Security Inc. to man the hallways of D.C. schools.
DCPS decided to overhaul its security plan last year, after a student was shot and killed by a classmate inside Ballou Senior High School. Longtime school-security contractor Watkins Security Agency was made the scapegoat for the incident, as well as other lapses at city schools. Consensus among the education crowd was that Watkins had to go.
The Metropolitan Police Department assembled a panel to select Watkins’ successor and settled on Hawk One in April. The $30 million contract is scheduled to begin July 1.
But this week the Cafritz-Graham duo made it clear that Hawk One would not have their blessing. They were livid about a May 27 report prepared by business-information firm Dun & Bradstreet that questions the company’s financial stability.
D.C. Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey helped make the dispute public. He sent a May 31 letter to City Administrator Robert Bobb, pointing to “alarming” information about Hawk One in the report. He wrote that the Dun & Bradstreet analysis shows that “Hawk One’s financial situation is extremely tenuous.”
Janey’s letter and the report were sent to all school-board members—an almost foolproof way of getting the word out that the city had screwed up.
The Dun & Bradstreet report makes Hawk One look like a financial basket case. It rates the company as a “high risk” for financial stress, such as bankruptcy, over the next 12 months. Hawk One also scored in the “high risk” category for “severe payment delinquency” over the next year. The report highlighted eight tax liens levied by the Internal Revenue Service and the state of Maryland for unpaid taxes and penalties.
Hawk One President Tyrone Thompson says the report misses some key points. When he took over the firm after a 1996 merger, the company owed $8 million in back taxes, he says. Thompson says Hawk One has crawled out of the hole through sound management. He says the remaining tax obligations are down to “about $1.5 million.” During the bid process, he produced a $20 million letter of credit from a bank to prove it.
City officials say that backing was a big factor in convincing them that Hawk One was a good bet.
Of course, “good bet” is a relative term in this competition, given that there were only three D.C. firms that made the final cut: Hawk One, the discredited Watkins, and B & B Security Consultants. Edward Reiskin, the city’s deputy administrator for public safety and justice, says that in light of the alternatives, Hawk One looked pretty good.
Why was the competition so limited? Contracting provincialism.
Reiskin says that the city was committed to hiring a local, small, disadvantaged business enterprise (LSDBE) for the school-security contract. When the District asked for bids on the contract, it made clear its LSDBE preferences.
Out-of-town large advantaged business enterprises (OLABEs) did not score well in the bid process.
Reiskin says Hawk One’s ability to carry out the security mission was the biggest factor in awarding the contract. He says that despite the narrow pool of applicants, he has complete confidence that with proper oversight Hawk One can do the job. Reiskin says the panel examining the bid, which included a school representative, was aware of the company’s warts. “[The panel] came up with a fairly strong recommendation,” Reiskin says. “Whatever those concerns, they were not fatal.”
Reiskin apparently didn’t check with Cafritz, who is no bleeding heart when it comes to school contracting.
“I think that’s bullshit, and I don’t think we have to do LSDBE on the backs of children,” she says, insisting that any firm charged with protecting schoolchildren “must be as pure as the driven snow.”
OK, so you have a dispute and fiery rhetoric from Cafritz. This is usually the point at which politicos roll their eyes and dismiss the issue as another Cafritz rant. But in this fight, Cafritz is getting support from an old political pro: Graham.
“I’ve been in the government,” says
Graham, who served as one of Williams’ deputy mayors and is also an ordained minister, “and I don’t buy the fact that we have to select small businesses that are incompetent.” Contracting preferences don’t mean that “race and gender and ethnicity outweigh integrity,” Graham says. “That could not have been the overriding factor to vet this group.”
School-board sources say Graham was the first to bring the Dun & Bradstreet report to Janey’s attention.
They also say Graham is angling to succeed Cafritz as school-board president in 2006. The minister won’t deny she’s considering a run for the top post: Graham says she won’t comment on her political plans “until I formally announce.”
Cafritz and Graham are committed to stopping the contract from going forward, although it’s not clear what buttons they can push. Cafritz says that if her concerns are not addressed, “The board could decide not to spend the money on this.” Deputy Mayor for Operations Herbert Tillery says Cafritz is “all bluster….It’s not her money to spend.”
If nothing else, credit Cafritz and Graham for putting Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson in the strange position of sticking up for a contractor with a questionable background. Patterson, who chairs the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation, says Hawk One has provided adequate assurances to convince her that the company is financially sound.
She also wonders why school officials are so upset; after all, they had a representative on the panel that picked Hawk One.
Patterson says James Baxley, the DCPS deputy general counsel, was on the contract-selection panel. Baxley left the schools in March. And according to Patterson, school officials never raised any issues about Hawk One with her. If they had, she could have pushed for a longer review period.
Patterson is no bomb-thrower. She has taken pains to gloss over the D.C. Council’s disagreements with the school board over spending since Janey arrived.
While Janey has been roundly praised by the board, the mayor, and the council, a fight for control has simmered underneath the calm. And as in any good fight in the area of school administration, Cafritz is at the center: “Protecting the well-being of the children is my top concern,” she says. “If it means I have to step on some toes, so be it,” she says.
Mayoral candidate and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty glad-handed, hugged, and backslapped his way through the June 5 Mount Pleasant Festival. Amid all the merriment, he ran into a familiar face: Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham.
It could have been a more joyous meeting.
Graham was full of enthusiasm for a Fenty mayoral run this past winter when he introduced the then-prospective candidate at two events—including a Ward 1 fundraiser.
But with the coming of spring, Graham abruptly reversed course: In late March, he told LL that if D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp or Williams got in the race, he would have to “reconsider” his support for his young colleague.
Graham hasn’t been seen at a Fenty campaign event since.
At the festival, Graham came out from under his sunshade umbrella and waited patiently for Fenty to finish talking to voters before shaking the candidate’s hand. “Welcome to Mount Pleasant, Adrian,” Graham said.
Fenty undoubtedly knew where he was, given that he grew up about four blocks away.
Then things got awkward. A Graham volunteer handed Fenty a red-and-white sticker that read: “Councilmember Jim Graham, Ward 1, No Taxation Without Representation.” Fenty promptly stuck it to his shirt.
A Fenty volunteer followed Graham’s lead and returned the gesture. He peeled off a green-and-white “Fenty for Mayor” sticker and handed it to the host councilmember.
That was the last time LL saw the Fenty sticker in Graham’s possession. Through some sleight of hand that would have made David Copperfield proud, the sticker disappeared. Graham didn’t return it, he didn’t put it on, and he certainly did not add it to the growing piles of street-festival litter.
It seems Graham has no doubts about his political leanings these days: A Jim Graham sticker was the only one on his shirt.
Graham had no comment for LL when asked afterward why he had taken a pass on the Fenty campaign paraphernalia.—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.