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D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz alerted key public officials Saturday morning: He’s headed our way.
Rudolph F. Crew, the desired former New York City schools chancellor, had decided to give D.C. public schools a second look. Miami/Dade County school officials had made him an offer. So had St. Louis. Now D.C. needed to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The wooing of Crew began long before last Saturday. Earlier in the week, Mayor Anthony A. Williams had made a big play for Crew. He was working on putting together a $600,000 first-year compensation package for the prized candidate, as the Washington Post reported on May 13. Miami’s sunshine had some allure, for sure, but being superintendent of D.C.’s 64,200-student system would put Crew back in the national spotlight.
Now that Cafritz had a captive audience, she did what she does best: She threw a dinner party Saturday night at her posh house on Chain Bridge Road NW. The invite list consisted of big decision-makers: D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp changed her plans and stayed late. D.C. Board of Education member Tommy Wells skipped out on a birthday party to attend. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson arrived in a tuxedo on his way to a black-tie dinner.
Luckily, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz had the evening free.
Williams was booked. He was across the Atlantic Ocean, attending the Third Annual Glocalization Conference in Rome.
On Monday morning, Crew told Miami yes.
The nation’s capital had lost out to the cultural capital of Latin America. “I think everybody put forth their best effort,” says Williams Chief of Staff Kelvin J. Robinson.
Crew visited D.C. school facilities Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, he toured the city with Ward 7 Councilmember and Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation Chair Kevin P. Chavous and Wards 7and 8 school-board representative William Lockridge.
Crew’s Saturday-night dinner conversation offers some insights into his decision-making. First off, Crew explained to Cafritz & Co. that Miami had put together a lot of money. D.C. had put together a lot of promises.
Crew asked about the diffuse lines of authority. Regarding school-system finances: Whom did he need approval from to spend money? Did Crew report to the school board? Or to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who carefully monitors every bean?
The niceties were served up as freely as the chicken with mushroom sauce and coconut cake. Cafritz expressed her confidence in Crew. So did Chavous.
Amid all the happy talk, a word or two from the mayor might have helped. Crew mentioned during the trip that he’d like to speak with D.C.’s Education Mayor. City officials involved with the visit say they encouraged Williams to call Crew. He complied—and got Crew’s voice mail. It was full.
Oh well, pass the San Pellegrino!
So Crew was negotiating with City Administrator Robert C. Bobb.
Under the current school-system governing structure, the D.C. Board of Education, which Cafritz heads, hires and fires the superintendent. Williams wants to change that arrangement, of course, but the D.C. Council rejected his plan for a school-governance takeover. Williams’ proposal was to make the school system a city agency and the superintendent a member of his cabinet, and diminish the school board’s powers.
The shortcomings of a mayoral takeover were made apparent during Crew Weekend: Williams wasn’t available. “[Bobb] was involved in assisting Mrs. Cafritz as requested,” explains Robinson. “We were supportive of the contract negotiations and participated as we were asked to do by Cafritz and others.”
The mayor’s handlers insist that Crew knew where he stood with Williams. “The mayor spoke with Mr. Crew Friday before he left to go to Rome and signaled to him how supportive he was of his nomination,” explains Robinson. “He gave every indication that he was willing to have further conversations with him. He also gave him every contact number he had….There’s no message on the mayor’s machine.”
Crew supporters say the mayor needed to make overtures, not the other way around. “The mayor wasn’t there to talk to the man!” says one dinner guest, who was among those who encouraged the mayor to talk to Crew before he left town.
“I regret the mayor wasn’t in town this
weekend,” says Ward 3 Councilmember
Williams’ absenteeism over Crew Weekend gave councilmembers who oppose his takeover plan new talking points. “I do not believe the answer is handing the school system to the mayor—who, let’s be honest, is rarely in town,” Schwartz told her colleagues on Tuesday, when the council voted 7-6 to keep the hybrid school board in place until 2006. “I happen to know a phone call would have made a difference, and that didn’t happen until it was too late.”
According to administration officials, Williams plans to veto the council’s school-governance bill.
•Last Friday, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr. apologized to the D.C. citizenry for what he characterized as a “bad-hair day” on May 11, when the legislative body debated the city’s $4.2 billion local-funds budget for fiscal year 2005. The remark referred to messy council deliberations on the spending plan.
“I have not had a good-hair day since I was in high school,” quipped follicular-challenged At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania moments later.
The infighting revolved around an amendment to the budget package that would have subtracted an additional $60 million, two-thirds of which was to come from human-services agencies. Championed by Ward 3 Councilmember Patterson and At-Large Councilmember Mendelson, the amendment passed on a 7-6 vote on May 11.
The debate divided a usually collegial, perfectly coiffed council. Opponents of the austerity package featured Chairman Cropp, who was so upset by the proposed cuts that she delayed the final budget vote until May 14. The big spenders accused the budget-cutters of a surprise attack.
Bitterness over the Mendo-Patterson amendment lingered through the week. On Friday, Patterson tried to move another amendment that proposed shifting $600,000 from the city’s two tax-free holiday periods to the struggling D.C. Public Library system. The sales-tax holiday is a flagship initiative of Republican At-Large Councilmember Schwartz. Whenever Schwartz runs for re-election, or for mayor, she touts the benefits of this “holiday” for D.C. residents and entrepreneurs.
So Schwartz lashed out at her Ward 3 colleague, suggesting that the new amendment was retribution for Schwartz’s vote against the budget-slashing package three days earlier. After all, Schwartz pointed out, she already moved money out of agencies under her committee to the libraries.
“I know this is a get-even approach,” said Schwartz. “I’m not the least bit fooled by this get-even for [the May 11] vote.”
Patterson’s amendment lost by a vote of 7-6.
•Mayor Williams might consider a vetting process for appointees to his boards and commissions similar to that of The Apprentice. LL thinks that real-estate mogul Donald Trump would make sure his handpicked agents agreed with his plans to build ostentatious monstrosities.
Williams’ appointees, by contrast, seem to diverge from the mayor’s agenda once they get sworn in—especially when it comes to building monstrosities. In recent months, his appointees to the National Capital Revitalization Corp. have held up the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, one of the mayor’s legacy-leaving projects. Now his recent appointees to the Washington Convention Center Authority Board of Directors seem to be headed in a different direction, as well.
Here’s what Williams wants them to do: plow ahead with plans to build a convention-center headquarters hotel at 9th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, just across the street from the new convention center. Also, the Williams agenda proposes using the site of the old convention center for a mixed-use retail/commercial/housing development with an urban plaza.
Now here’s what they’re actually doing: The board recently released a 122-page request for proposals that crosses up the Williams vision. It asks for a brand-new study on the headquarters hotel as well as expansion space for the convention center. The bulky document essentially challenges all the work done in recent years by Williams’ key economic-development team.
“[The board of directors] are simply doing due diligence,” says Convention Center Authority spokesperson Tony Robinson. “We’re saying that we want our own independent study. We absolutely need expansion space.”
One defense is not available to the Williams team: They haven’t exactly been moving quickly on the redevelopment project. In a conference in January, D.C.’s development partner on the headquarters hotel complained that the city’s selection of a “rock-star” architect had slowed the process almost to a halt.
More recently, an alternative proposal by architect Ted Mariani has drawn the attention of councilmembers as well as convention-center board members. Mariani’s plan emphasizes expansion space and places the headquarters hotel on the old-convention-center site.
“We knew it was coming,” says Chris Bender, spokesperson for the D.C. Office of Planning and Economic Development. “The Convention Center authority felt like they needed more data.”
Saturday afternoon, inspired by the sun and blue skies, LL took a leisurely drive through Fort Dupont Park in Ward 7. Winding along Fort Davis Drive and Ridge Road SE, LL saw families picnicking underneath oak and maple trees, mountain bikers pedaling, and neighbors mowing lawns and meticulously landscaping. It’s not the east-of-the-river D.C. snapshots most often shown by the media.
LL soon had a shocking reminder of that fact: Only blocks away from Fort Dupont Park, that same gorgeous Saturday, former Ward 7 school-board member Terry Hairston had been found shot to death in his house. As of press time, the circumstances that caused Hairston’s untimely death remained unknown.
Hairston had recently re-emerged on the D.C. political scene: LL had bumped into the effervescent 38-year-old at a Ballou Senior High School forum after the shooting death of James Richardson in February and at various community meetings and rallies since then. Hairston left public office in 1998, after serving a tumultuous term on the school board and, in 1996, challenging Ward 7 D.C. Council incumbent Chavous. In a tête-à-tête about a month ago, he updated LL on his life: Since departing the school board, he had remained involved in education, traveling to Korea to teach English. After moving back to the United States for family reasons, he had been working as a substitute teacher at a middle school in Silver Spring. He told LL that he was currently pursuing a degree in special education.
Hairston also told LL he was considering pursuing something else: the Ward 7 seat on the D.C. Council. In fact, Hairston filed his candidacy with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance this past Friday, May 14.
LL expresses our condolences to the Hairston family for their loss. —Elissa Silverman
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