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A little more than a month ago, Mayor Anthony A. Williams became really indignant about D.C.’s public schools. He compared the 67,000-student system to a “slow-moving train wreck” as well as to a natural disaster. So Williams declared that he was going to stage a takeover. The mayor said that he couldn’t stand to watch youngsters lose out as the Board of Education fussed and finger-pointed.

He was all pumped up.

On Monday, Williams met with the D.C. Council to discuss how to get it done. The scene was set for a dramatic rhetorical performance by the city’s chief executive—complete with references to the city’s struggling children, desperate parents, and unwieldy schools bureaucracy. Instead, the mayor sat quietly and listened to everyone else pontificate.

It was Citizen Summit III without the Jumbotron.

By the end of the meeting, Council Chair Linda W. Cropp told the mayor he didn’t have council support to do what he wanted—namely, abolish the elected school board and banish President Peggy Cooper Cafritz to the most remote part of Blue Plains.

The static over schools governance isn’t too surprising. Ever since Williams started making rumblings on the topic, he’s left everyone guessing on the particulars. So far the mayor has offered no specifics for his takeover plan, only his frustration with the current regime. Williams-administration officials have confided that the bold policy initiative has not gone exactly according to plan. Instead of building momentum for radical change, the mayor seems to be coming to a halt.

The day after Williams made big headlines with his takeover announcement, two different takes on the initiative appeared in the daily newspapers. “Takeover of Schools Supported on Council: Majority Is Receptive to D.C. Mayor’s Plan,” declared a front-page Metro headline in the Washington Post. “Williams backs off takeover,” announced the Metropolitan front page in the Washington Times.

Well, which is it?

The mayor’s ambiguous plan did make a splash with some other elected officials in town. The takeover story landed the day Williams made a historic trip to the floor of the U.S. Senate. As he watched, various supporters of a federally funded D.C. school-voucher initiative highlighted the controversial proposal as just one part of the mayor’s greater vision for transforming D.C. public schools. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) referred to vouchers as part of a bigger scheme of reform. “It’s what the leaders in the District want,” said Frist.

Frist must have read an item in the Post’s “In Brief” section that LL missed.

What Williams and the council want right now is the ability to take their red pens to the D.C. public-schools budget—a coup that would require a change in the city charter. In the past few weeks, the mayor, interested councilmembers, and the school board have tried to iron out an agreement on so-called line-item authority. It’s pretty much a waste of time. Both the executive branch and councilmembers admit that they will lobby Capitol Hill for the change whether Cafritz & Co. agree or not.

In the meantime, the folks at the Wilson Building had better figure out what to do with the board. On June 27, the School Governance Charter Amendment Act of 2000 sunsets. That amendment created the current hybrid school board, which has a popularly elected president, four elected members who represent two wards apiece, and four at-large members appointed by the mayor. The hybrid was a compromise between the mayor’s desire to have an appointed board and the council’s majority desire to retain elected school-board members. Williams signed on because he could exert control through his four appointees.

Yet the mayor seemed to check in with his appointments to the school board as often as he checked in with his appointments to the Board of Massage Therapy. Earlier this year, appointed school-board members Roger Wilkins and Charles Lawrence resigned, expressing frustration with the mayor. Wards 1 and 2 rep Julie Mikuta counts Mayor Williams among her constituents, but in a recent letter to the Post, Mikuta pointed out that she has never heard from the Foggy Bottom resident.

“Never,” she wrote.

The mayor does have some powerful local allies for his schools putsch. Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous, for starters, joins Williams in his animosity toward the brash Cafritz, with whom he has often clashed in his job as chair of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation. And Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who heads the Committee on Finance and Revenue, places his head in his hands every time Cafritz & Co. hit up the council for more money.

Yet a mayoral majority was elusive on Monday. Five councilmembers expressed their opposition to any kind of school-board takeover: Ward 1’s Jim Graham, Ward 4’s Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose, Ward 8’s Sandy Allen, and At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz.

At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania announced that he would support the mayor only if he went so far as to suspend personnel rules, clearing the way for pink-slipping teachers. That means fighting the teachers’ union.

In other words, add one member more against the mayor.

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Others expressed desire for some kind of radical reform but remained hesitant to dismantle the elected body. Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson and Ward 5’s Vincent B. Orange Sr. ultimately took up the pro-democracy mantle. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson spoke strongly about accountability but in the end wondered whether the mayor would do any better.

Cropp remained noncommittal but ready to forge a compromise—business as usual in the chairman’s office.

At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil remained mum.

Sure, every politico on the council raps about accountability and reform. Yet what it boils down to is this: All of them live in fear of signing on to a bill that strips voting rights from the already disenfranchised D.C. populace. From voting in the presidential election to home rule to a pending bill to give D.C. a vote in the House of Representatives—every step toward full democracy in the District has come only after struggle. No one wants to live with the stigma of favoring a voluntary forfeit of voting rights.

LL can see it now: Paul Strauss running for “shadow” school-board rep.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Catania and Chavous have spent the last three years strategizing how to keep a public medical facility on the D.C. General Hospital campus. First, the dynamic duo shouted down the mayor’s plan to shut down inpatient services at D.C. General and switch to a privatized system of health care. The financial control board and mayor closed the hospital anyway.

Next, Catania and Chavous sued to keep D.C. General open. The courts ruled against them.

Now, Catania and Chavous are ready to present another scheme: On Tuesday, they plan to introduce a bill supporting the public funding of a new Howard University Hospital on the old D.C. General campus.

Howard University officials have embraced the plan, says Catania.

The Catania/Chavous idea would work like this: The city would pay to build a new inpatient hospital facility for Howard, which would move its medical campus from its current location on Georgia Avenue NW to 19th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE. Howard would pay the city back over the years through uncompensated care—in other words, through the treatment of D.C. residents without health insurance.

City Administrator Robert Bobb says the mayor has expressed interest in the proposal.

Catania proposes to name the hospital after Walter E. Washington, D.C.’s first elected mayor, who passed away Monday. “I think it would be an amazing tribute,” says Catania.

Working on the council doesn’t exactly test one’s foreign-language skills. Sure, you have to deal with some ipso factos and maybe some “quid pro quo”s, but Latin is a dead language.

Some councilmembers, though, have trouble with the living ones. Especially living ones with decidedly nonphonetic pronunciation rules.

The polyglot problem arose in a roundtable discussion on disposition of the old convention center. As it turns out, the city hopes to lease some of that real estate to Cirque du Soleil after demolition of the building is complete. Ward 4’s Fenty questioned the scheme, with perfect French diction: SERK-due-soLAY.

Fenty’s flawless pronunciation didn’t rub off on colleague Brazil, who is chair of the council’s Committee on Economic Development. Brazil had trouble understanding Fenty’s concerns about, as he put it, “SERKay-day-solay.”

At-Large Councilmember Schwartz echoed Fenty’s concerns about the agreement, even if she did not echo his pronunciation. “You talked about a nominal fee for Circle Alay,” Schwartz said at one point. The troupe plans to rent a portion of the old convention center’s plot for approximately $15,000.

Both Graham and Catania spoke about the Cirque with the refinement born of a classical education.

Councilmembers stumbled over other aspects of the site’s disposition. As of now, the city will transfer site control over to the Washington Convention Center Authority without council approval of a lease.

That attracted the councilmembers’ attention immédiate.

In an expression of displeasure this spring, Ward 7 residents dumped trash on Chavous’ front lawn. Apparently the ward champions recycling even when it comes to leadership. A letter encouraging a draft of former Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford for D.C. Council has been making the rounds.

According to the 2000 Census, Ward 7 has approximately 71,000 residents. LL has to believe that dissatisfied Ward 7 residents could find someone other than Crawford to represent their interests. In fact, Vincent Gray, former Department of Human Services director and current executive director of Covenant House, has expressed interest in the race.

“As most of us know, H.R. Crawford was voted out of office and replaced by what we thought would be a ‘Knight in Shining Armor’ not our ongoing ‘nightmare!’” writes Ted Howard, who is organizing the draft movement. “We were hoping to move the ward forward, not backward.”

Crawford says he’ll consider coming out of retirement. “If there’s a need I’ll serve,” he says. “That’s a decision the people will make.”

While Mayor Williams conducted his weekly press briefing on the ground floor of the Wilson Building Wednesday morning, conspicuous earpieced individuals monitored the comings and goings outside the mayor’s ceremonial office on the fifth floor.

Had Williams assigned his stunt double to the Fourth Estate while he conducted some real business upstairs?

Upon further investigation, LL spotted a dark-suited George Clooney roaming the fifth-floor hallway, camera in hand. Ragin’ Cajun James Carville paced around as well, demanding lunch.

K Street had come to 1350 Pennsylvania Ave.

Council Chair Cropp stopped by to greet the crew and thank them for filming in the District. LL observed her spending quite a few minutes next to Clooney. What did they talk about? “I just looked into his eyes, honey!” Cropp told LL afterward. —Elissa Silverman

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