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D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz is a proven brawler. Her combination of haymakers and quick jabs puts her near the top of her class in a political rumble.

Lately Cafritz has taken the path of many veteran fighters: She’s spent some time away from the ring. Some might call it a semiretirement from attacking opponents. In the half-year since the D.C. Council killed Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ plan to take over the schools, Cafritz became more gentle sparring partner than well-honed champion. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey’s arrival seemed to have cooled her desire to pummel others.

But like all great fighters, Cafritz couldn’t stay away from the game.

Her comeback has been fueled by anger at the spending habits of David Gilmore, the D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) court-appointed transportation administrator. In 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman appointed Gilmore to fix a transportation division plagued by low morale, high absenteeism, and pathetic performance. The District’s per-pupil costs are among the highest in the nation, in large part because of a court order requiring that 4,000 special-needs students be bused to private schools or other public schools in the area, no matter what the cost.

Gilmore embraced that mandate with gusto. In July 2004, he presented a $75 million fiscal 2005 budget request for his division, $14 million over the previous year’s budget. Gilmore says the boost is needed to run the special-education busing system at the level required by the court.

The bell rang for Round 1 when Cafritz went after Gilmore’s spending request at a special school-budget hearing last month chaired by the mayor. The meeting was littered with references to cooperation and teamwork, but Cafritz charged that “the transportation spending problem is more out of control than it’s ever been.”

Cafritz may be the main draw in this bout, but Gilmore is no underdog. He’s a scrappy, smart, and relentless veteran of the political ring. Gilmore won wide praise for rescuing the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) at a time when public housing had become a magnet for crime and gangs and a symbol of D.C.’s social ills. That was another court-appointed gig that came with an open checkbook, compliments of the court.

Gilmore was in prime condition for the fight after running uphill trying to fix a transportation system with administrative help from DCPS headquarters. Gilmore says DCPS bungled such simple tasks as paying drivers. It canceled valid medical insurance and lost applications for new drivers. Dozens of personnel orders simply disappeared. Gilmore didn’t wait long before he brought in his own people to manage the basic business operations.

Taking over work previously handled by headquarters costs money. So does giving retroactive raises to employees who didn’t get their step increases because of a dysfunctional DCPS payroll program, as an arbitrator ordered Gilmore to do. The courts piled on another order to reduce ride times for D.C. special-education students. Gilmore added more buses and routes, and his budget request grew.

In January, Gilmore asked the school board to approve a request that DCPS buy 375 buses it had been leasing. He said the purchase would save the schools some $28 million over the next six years. But the school board tabled the request.

That snub, and the board’s criticism of his budget request, prompted Gilmore to send a letter in late January to Friedman stating that his relationship with school officials was at its lowest point ever.

LL, curious why Cafritz would choose to taunt a tough veteran like Gilmore, seems to have kicked off Round 2.

Asked by LL about the friction, Cafritz says she is upset about Gilmore’s “irresponsible overspending” at the transportation division. More specifically, she believes Gilmore is taking the city for a ride.

“The [school] system is being ripped off,” Cafritz says. She adds, “We’ve really got to rein him in.” In one of her signature body blows, she says that it’s time the District “stopped enriching Mr. Gilmore and his company.”

Gilmore has demurred from attacking Cafritz publicly and, when reached by LL, continued that strategy—for about a minute. Gilmore says reducing costs at the transportation division is a long-term goal, but his prime directive from Friedman is to make the bus system work. Gilmore says Cafritz’s recent actions reveal her ignorance. “I’m not surprised that Peggy Cooper Cafritz is making these ill-informed comments,” he says.

The battle involving two of the school system’s heavyweights recalls the bickering and petty political squabbles that have repeatedly overshadowed any modest improvements made by DCPS. The blame game has plagued the system for years. The formation of the Education Collaborative, a group that includes the mayor, Cafritz, representatives of the school board, and D.C. Council representatives, was supposed to end all that.

Cafritz and Gilmore do seem to be trying to end their fight: Both are looking for the knockout punch.

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Cafritz asserts that Gilmore’s inability to control spending proves that the school system should be running the special-needs busing system. “Now that we have a normal superintendent, I hope we are able to do normal, responsible things,” such as operating the bus system, Cafritz says. She thinks it’s time for Gilmore to throw in the towel. “We need a transportation professional to run our transportation system.”

“I’m a convenient source to blame,” Gilmore counters. He snickers at the notion that the school system could do a better job with transportation. “She is saying, ‘Look, we were running the system more cheaply than Gilmore is.’ Yes, an inept system.”

But Cafritz also knows how to hit below the belt. She’s even taking shots at Gilmore’s most precious title: his successful effort to lead the DCHA out of receivership. “He didn’t turn around the public-housing program. I just don’t know where this reputation comes from,” Cafritz says. “I don’t know anyone who is respecting the job he is doing.”

Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, chair of the Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, shook her head when LL asked her about the Cafritz/Gilmore bout, calling it “the same old, same old” for the school system. Patterson may have oversight responsibility for the schools, but she’ll leave the referee duties to someone else.

Patterson does say the number of complaints from parents of special-needs kids is way down, and she recalls Gilmore’s stint with DCHA as a success.

Now the new superintendent may be called upon to play peacemaker. Janey has been lauded by school-board members and politicians as the best choice to lead a major D.C. institution since Joe Gibbs. Both Gilmore and Cafritz claim excellent relationships with the soft-spoken Janey, who did not return calls seeking comment.

But in the end, the outcome of the Gilmore/Cafritz fight is in the hands of the only judge interested in this bout: Friedman. In other words, the fix is in. Gilmore doesn’t report to Janey or Cafritz. Friedman calls the shots. And Gilmore has already filed a motion asking the court to compel the schools to come up with the $14 million he needs if they can’t reach an agreement.

That should keep things out of the ring for at least one more year. That is, if Gilmore can stay clear of Cafritz’s long reach.

ORANGE LIGHT DISTRICT

Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange has stumbled on a surefire way to make a bill banning smoking in bars more palatable to business groups: Bring on the strippers.

One of the two smoke-free-workplace bills introduced this week seemed destined for Orange’s Committee on Government Operations. Several councilmembers claim Orange—who has taken some steps toward the council’s pro-business camp—has said he will hold a hearing on the bill only if it includes some exemptions, including one for strip clubs.

Advocates for the smoking ban were dancing with Orange so they might shimmy around At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz. A bill to ban smoking in all enclosed workspaces was referred to her Committee on Public Works and the Environment during the last council session. It stalled after Schwartz held one hearing, and she’s still not convinced D.C. should give up its National Smokers Refuge designation. “District businesses have benefited financially from Montgomery County’s ban on bar and restaurant smoking,” Schwartz says.

While councilmembers concede that the pro-strip-club lobby holds little sway at the John A. Wilson Building, At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown says Orange asked for a bill that included “a few things that will eliminate some of the opposition.” Brown and some health advocates think it makes sense to model D.C.’s smoking ban on New York’s law, which carves out exemptions for rooftop decks, private clubs, and adult-entertainment venues.

All of the concessions to please Orange may have been a waste of time: At a Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday, Council Chair Linda Cropp referred Brown’s bill to Schwartz’s committee.

Orange—who has formed a mayoral exploratory committee—had no comment either on the smoke-free bill or on strippers, but he has often tried to portray himself as a fair but business-friendly wheeler-dealer. It’s not clear how his pursuit of the nudie-bar vote fits into that scheme, but if he does run for mayor, it creates an opportunity for some classic campaign events.

The decision to include the strip-club exemption drew a predictable response from the council’s do-gooders eager to tie adult entertainment to every crime on the street. Ward 4 Councilmember and fellow mayoral explorer Adrian Fenty called it a surprising move, “considering Councilmember Orange supported legislation to move all new adult-entertainment clubs downtown.”

But health advocates seem unconcerned that one group of hardworking employees would be unprotected under Brown’s bill. The American Cancer Society’s Renee McPhatter would not comment directly on why strippers don’t need the same level of protection as, say, the Hooters gals. “The New York law does cover a wide range of workers, and the American Cancer Society supports that law,” she says.”

Over at the Royal Palace, at Connecticut and Florida Avenues NW, a dancer who identifies herself as Precious isn’t thrilled about being left off the list of workers deemed worthy of protection: “That sucks.” A more laid-back co-worker, Victoria, says the exemption is not a big deal. “Hey, we’re all adults here, sweetheart,” she says.

The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington is girding for an all-out assault on both smoke-free bills. It’s not clear who will have its back. Neither of the city’s two major business groups, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, has taken a position on the issue, and sources inside those organizations say recent reports that the smoking ban has done little to hurt business in New York City are also giving some of their members pause. Bans now in place in California, Cuba, and even Italy make the District’s position look even sillier.

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce is taking the most gutless approach. Chamber spokesperson Cynthia Brock-Smith says the group plans to poll its members before deciding whether to come to the aid of their pub-and-grub brethren. “If we find out our members have mixed opinions on this, we may have to remain neutral,” Brock-Smith says.

—James Jones

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