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When former chancellor of New York City schools Rudolph F. Crew came for a tour of the District last month, the D.C. Council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams were divided over whether to revise governance of the D.C. public schools. Crew turned down the city’s superintendent job, citing schools oversight as a factor.
This week, Williams traveled to Long Beach, Ca., to woo the new hot prospect, Carl A. Cohn.
And if Williams tells Cohn that the two sides are closer to an agreement on governance, he might as well throw in season tickets for Washington’s new baseball team.
On April 20, the council voted 9-4 to kill Williams’ plan to take over the school system, a proposal that included Williams hiring and firing the superintendent. Having disposed of the mayor’s plan, the council voted 7-6 on May 18 to extend the current hybrid elected/appointed school board through 2006, after which the board would turn into an all-elected body. Williams vetoed that legislation, leaving essentially no plan in place for the moment.
Now Williams and his education strategists are trying to flip a councilmember or two in order to revive his takeover plan. And their efforts are alienating a faction of the council that bridles at the administration’s willingness to play politics with the schools. “I think it’s simply wrong for an elected official…to horse-trade on educating children,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
A key player in the council’s new barter economy has been Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, one of the issue’s great fence-sitters. Although Graham voted against the mayoral takeover on April 20, he also voted on May 18 against extending the current arrangement.
So Graham has some lingering concerns. And Williams has responded à la Dr. Frasier Crane: I’m listening.
Graham has insisted that even if the mayor were to hire and fire the superintendent, an elected Board of Education should retain some policy-making authority. So Williams has crafted a “State Board of Education” in his revised takeover plan which would be empowered to set student-achievement guidelines, graduation requirements, and other stuff.
Graham has decried the $15,000 salary board members currently earn. He has insisted that those willing to serve students, parents, and teachers should make $40,000. Williams has settled on $30,000 in his new proposal.
Asked about the price of his support, Graham responded, “Every member of every legislature in Western civilization does this.”
Opponents of a mayoral takeover say that Graham has other education-related items on his agenda, too, starting with the Bruce School, a surplus city property on Kenyon Street NW. Graham has long wanted the property in his ward liberated from the school-system inventory and put in use for more constructive purposes. On May 19, he got his wish: Williams’ Office of Property Management took control of the building and even changed the locks.
The anti-mayoral-takeover faction seized on the expedited action as evidence that the Williams people will do anything to win. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson raised the matter in a recent meeting with Williams. “I said to the mayor…that I was incensed that his administration would be willing to barter public school assets to get votes,” recalls Mendelson. “He denied it.”
So does Graham. “It was never part of the discussion over the governance bill,” he says. “There are several councilmembers that are very emotional about this issue. They are lashing out.”
Gregory McCarthy, Williams’ chief policy aide and negotiator with the council on the governance bill, also denies a connection between the two. “That’s 1,000 percent, categorically untrue. I barely know what the Bruce School is,” says McCarthy.
The anti-mayoral-takeover faction on the council also complains that the administration has sent in heavies to persuade veteran councilmember Harold Brazil. According to these accounts, takeover proponent Terry Golden, who is chairman of the Federal City Council, and other prominent business leaders marched into Brazil’s office and announced that they would withdraw fundraising support for his re-election bid if Brazil voted in support of the hybrid.
McCarthy denies any such offensive against Brazil.
This week, the mayor’s team focused on a new possible convert: Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen. Here’s the thinking: The prospect of a challenge from former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. might make the councilmember receptive to Williams’ plan in exchange for election help.
That help might not be what the councilmember wishes for.
First of all, Allen has spoken against a mayoral takeover. And Allen herself endorsed another candidate for mayor two years ago. Aware of Williams’ voter deficit in her ward, she threw her support to the Rev. Willie F. Wilson in 2002. And given his perceived negative ratings in the ward, even Williams jokes that an endorsement might be the worst thing he could do for the councilmember.
D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp says the mayor’s prolonged fight to win control is a loser for D.C. public schools in the end.“It’s bringing about a destabilization of the school system where we cannot bring this to closure and attract the superintendent candidate we want and desperately need,” she says.
Michael Brown, a possible mayoral candidate who sits on the superintendent search committee, says the mayor needs to move on. “As a parent of kids in D.C. public schools, I would hope that the interest of our children outweigh the interest in who wins or loses the governance fight,” says Brown.
On Saturday morning, D.C. Council at-large hopeful Sam Brooks squared off against his main opponents in this September’s Democratic primary, Kwame Brown and incumbent Brazil. In his opening remarks, Brooks identified “the elephant” sitting in the Cleveland Park branch library meeting room.
Just what was Brooks referring to?
1) Was it Ward 1 Councilmember Graham, who sat in the back row surrounded by an entourage of his council staff as the largely Ward 3 crowd listened to the inaugural rumble? Graham at one point was thinking about joining the at-large fray, until council Chairman Cropp persuaded him to drop such a “divisive” bid.
2) Was it the ethics problem of 14-year councilmember Brazil? Last week, the Washington Post’s Serge Kovaleski reported that Brazil had asked members of his D.C. Council staff to do work for his personal-injury law practice.
3) Was it Babar himself, the fabled elephant who stars in the children’s sections of libraries everywhere?
For Brooks, the answer was 2. He called the allegations of misconduct by Brazil “a grave violation of the public trust.” He even called for Brazil to resign. “I hope, if nothing else, he drops out of the race,” he told Cleveland Parkers that morning.
The remarks proved the 24-year-old candidate a dreamer. Though the Post’s coverage has spurred a D.C. Office of Campaign Finance investigation, as well as speculation that at least one of Brazil’s clients might bring forth a complaint to the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel, LL doesn’t foresee Brazil abandoning his re-election bid anytime soon. After all, his part-time gig representing the people of the District is much more lucrative than his part-time gig representing the people hurt in auto accidents: According to his recent financial-disclosure report, filed with the campaign-finance office, Brazil earned a gross income of $55,000 last year from his law firm. He makes $92,500 at the council, and he gets a taxpayer-funded council office and legislative staff.
In hammering Brazil, Brooks was capitalizing on what amounted to an early campaign donation from the Post.
Brown, on the other hand, chose not to address Brazil’s ethics issues. Like successful Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, he touted the “core values” he has embraced after nearly 100 listening sessions with D.C. residents: education, public safety, and quality of life.
How many hours did it take for Brown to reach those startling conclusions?
Effort and listening skills aside, Brown’s platform seemed to leave Graham nonplussed; LL observed him yawning during a response to a question on education. Has Graham been losing sleep over his misguided decision to bag the race?
Graham certainly got a firsthand look at all the openings that Brazil leaves for his challengers. The convictionless councilmember often has a hard time explaining himself, as Cleveland Parkers experienced when Brazil tried to explain his position on school governance. Here’s how that one went:
1) First he answered that the mayor’s proposal makes the system more convoluted. That’s bad.
2) Then he discussed his conflicting thoughts on the bill passed by his council colleagues, which keeps the hybrid elected/appointed board:
a) Brazil voted for the bill on its first reading.
b) He voted against it on the second reading, saying he couldn’t support the “status quo.”
3) Although no model of legislative clarity himself, Brazil also bemoaned the dragging out of the governance debate, which might impact the search for a superintendent.
4) Brazil said he was likely to vote to sustain the mayor’s veto of the bill passed by the council—a position that appears consistent with 2b.
LL can’t wait to see that thought pattern bullet-pointed in a Brazil brochure.
Brazil educated potential voters on other parts of his record, such as his work to improve the city’s air quality. He mentioned how he had “been trying” to get the old convention center knocked down and that the interim plan for the valuable downtown space was a parking lot. “For all those cars coming downtown, we can keep them parked during the day,” Brazil noted.
That should earn the Sierra Club endorsement!
Brazil eventually addressed the ethics allegations at the very end of the forum: He said that his staff volunteered their own time and he wondered aloud why the Post chose to put the story on the front page. In a breakfast meeting with colleagues last week, according to several present, Brazil offered a theory: that the esteemed newspaper and Kovaleski were out to get him.
Cleveland Park Citizens Association First Vice President Peter Espenschied made the most interesting observation of the race: that perhaps Cropp pushed Graham out because she believed the position was “reserved for names starting with BR not GR.”
The GR’s appearance, of course, fueled speculation that he might ignore alphabetical preference and jump back into the race. “I wanted to hear the candidates. This is an at-large race,” he explained, when LL inquired why he chose to spend his Saturday morning with his Ward 1 staff up the street in Ward 3.
A moment later, he mentioned that he was mulling over his summer plans once again.
LL suggests that Graham head to the beach for a few weeks while those brave enough to be divisive slug it out with Brazil.
Leave it to Barry to create more buzz than even the Brood X cicadas. Until last week, LL had to suffer through newspaper articles and dinner-party chatter obsessively focused on the red-eyed onslaught, even though LL has spotted only a handful of the 17-year hibernators in our Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
Now city-dwellers have focused on a more relevant cyclical occurence organic to our region: Brood Barry. Our former mayor seems to have a biological need for the spotlight, and so he pops into the public sphere every two years around the end of spring or early summer to threaten another run for office.
The past few cycles, Barry has ended up aborting his bids. In 2000, after weeks of media speculation, the former mayor said he was abandoning a possible challenge to At-Large Councilmember Brazil to work on a youth anti-violence initiative. He promised to unveil a “three-part, major effort” in upcoming weeks.
When did that occur?
“My work was taking too much of my time,” explains Barry, who says that he put together an outline of the project and worked it all out on paper. He’s apparently preserving that document for the mayoral archives: When LL asked to see his plans, Barry responded, “I’m not discussing it.” —Elissa Silverman
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