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Last week, the top finance official in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) left his post on account of health problems. Now, it appears, another of the school system’s top brass has been struck by malady: D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz has come down with a serious case of martyr complex.

Cafritz complains that Mayor Anthony A. Williams won’t meet with her. She moans that the feds want to impose vouchers on her. She cries that both Williams and Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous conspire with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige behind her back. And, in what must seem like a real indignity, it took months and months, she says, to get an appointment with D.C. Office of Planning Director Andy Altman.

Yet if Cafritz is so desperate for validation from local and national bigwigs, why has she canceled the last two scheduled meetings between the school board and the mayor?

Every month, Williams meets with school-board members and Chavous, who chairs the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation. On March 26, the board was scheduled to commune with the mayor at the John A. Wilson Building. But that morning, members received a call from school-board Executive Director Russell Smith, informing them that the gathering had been called off. Board members assumed that the mayor had a more urgent commitment.

Later that day, Williams sat tapping his foot, along with Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, and Families Carolyn Graham, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Legislative Affairs Gregory McCarthy, and Senior Adviser for Education Michelle Walker, among others. The mayor was waiting to meet with the board. Finally, the administration figured it out. “Peggy canceled it herself,” explains McCarthy.

A few hours earlier, word had spread among board members that the mayor was still on schedule. Only two members made efforts to attend: Wards 5 and 6 rep Tommy Wells and mayoral appointee Laura Gardner, who never quite made it. At the end of the intimate meeting, the mayor muttered to those in the room that any other “big-city mayor” wouldn’t have a problem convening his board of education. When the chief executive rang, they would show up.

“I have to be able to meet with the school board when I need to,” the mayor complained.

This wasn’t what Williams campaigned for when he put all his mayoral muscle behind a referendum to create a newly structured school board almost three years ago. At the time, the new hybrid board was hailed as an executive-branch triumph, given his four mayoral appointees and greater sphere of influence over school system policy and budgeting.

LL’s reality check: The school system has a $65 million deficit in FY 2003, 640 unbudgeted employees, two vacant school-board seats that are mayorally appointed, and a school-board president who can’t seem to play well with others.

Especially with the mayor.

Cafritz informed her colleagues that the March meeting was canceled after the mayor sent over an agenda that the board was unprepared to discuss. McCarthy counters that the agenda was from the February meeting, which Cafritz canceled as well. The real reason Cafritz sent her colleagues away, Williams administration and board sources say, is brinkmanship she’s engaged in with the mayor. She wants to meet with him one on one. He wants to meet with the entire board.

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Cafritz and the mayor have gotten on recently like Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush. The strain dates back to Cafritz’s 2000 race to take over the school-board perch. After much cajoling, Williams endorsed Cafritz late in the campaign season. A long period of benign neglect ensued. Before his nominating-petition crisis over the summer, Williams considered backing another candidate in the 2002 race. When news of a $323 million budget gap for the city surfaced last fall, Cafritz refused to volunteer the schools for any cuts, angering Williams.

A new wedge has emerged recently: Cafritz came out in favor of a federal plan to institute experimental school vouchers in the District. She says she did it to “get ahead” of Williams and Chavous. In the ensuing debate on vouchers, Cafritz has accused the two of disrespect, dishonesty, and even conspiracy: At a meeting with the Palisades Citizens’ Association last week, Cafritz asserted that the mayor and Chavous meet without her knowledge on the voucher plan, as well as other schools issues.

“That is absolutely false,” Chavous shot back to the crowd.

“We weren’t conspiring behind anyone’s back,” Chavous told LL in a later interview. “If anyone’s playing games, it’s not me. And in this case, I don’t think it’s the mayor, either.”

Chavous says that Cafritz has been conspicuously absent from other meetings, such as those of the mayor’s special-ed task force. And she didn’t exactly preview her bomb-throwing pro-voucher Washington Post op-ed prior to publication. “I think she purposely didn’t want to discuss this with us so she could say she didn’t know what was going on,” Chavous says.

Even if Cafritz feels left out of the loop locally, she’s made a big splash on the national scene. Four of her fellow board members—Marian Saez, Dwight Singleton, Julie Mikuta, and William Lockridge—attended a national school-boards conference in San Francisco this past week.

Singleton told LL that Cafritz’s controversial position on vouchers was the hot conversation topic at the conference. “Mrs. Cafritz speaks to her opinionated views,” Singleton explained to his national colleagues. “She’s been quite consistent in doing that.”

Saez reminded the San Francisco crowd that the D.C. board last year voted to oppose vouchers and hasn’t reversed that decision.

Cafritz insists she’s just stirring the pot and accelerating discussion on the inevitability of vouchers. But her antics have some real implications. The mayor has those two open slots on the school board. Every time LL asks about them, Williams & Co. answer that they are reviewing all board and commission vacancies.

LL guesses that the slots will be filled about the same time the massage-therapy board finds a qualified candidate.

Yet Williams administration insiders say school-board seats may be harder to fill than do-nothing commissions: Reputable candidates, they say, don’t relish sharing the dais with a loose cannon like Cafritz.

At this rate, at least they’d be spared a few meetings.

ADDING AND CONTRACTING

Former At-Large Councilmember John Ray has had a hectic couple of months. The Manatt, Phelps & Phillips attorney lobbies D.C. government on behalf of some challenging clients: Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which declared bankruptcy last fall, and H20 Entertainment, which bailed on the D.C. Marathon last month.

This week, Ray burned some shoe leather at the Wilson Building on behalf of another soon-to-be-high-maintenance client: Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates (TCBA). One of the largest minority-owned accounting firms in the country, TCBA has a lot of local juice: Principal Jeffrey Thompson is a major contributor and adviser to Mayor Williams. He also owns D.C. Chartered Health Plan, which is part of the Williams administration’s D.C. Healthcare Alliance, and he sits on the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

TCBA’s work often intersects with District business: According to city documents, the firm has benefited from $22 million in D.C. government contracting over the past two years. The work includes lucrative IT consulting for the University of the District of Columbia, work on the city’s Master Business License program for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and enrollment auditing for DCPS.

TCBA in late February secured a contract to provide health-care-related consulting to the District for $11 million a year. This week, however, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans exercised the council’s authority to review contractual agreements. Along with six of his cohorts, Evans signed onto a resolution for disapproval for the TCBA contract—an action that puts the deal under review for another 15 days. If the council resolves its concerns during that period, the contract will take effect.

If Evans moves forward with the resolution to kill the contract, the council will vote on it next week.

To earn its $11 million, TCBA would make sure city agencies are in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a federal law that, among other things, regulates access to patient records. “My question is: Can we do it for less? Can we do it for $9 million instead of $11 million?” Evans asks. “I was surprised by both John Ray and others who have called me about this contract. That always raises my concerns, when I get calls questioning something I’ve done.”

Evans isn’t the first to ask hard questions about the contract. The city first awarded the contract to TCBA in January and then withdrew it after losing bidders filed appeals alleging unfair contracting practices and conflicts of interest between TCBA and the city.

The bidders alleged that TCBA had an inside track after completing approximately $2 million in assessment work regarding HIPAA. “There was great concern among bidders that TCBA had inside knowledge due to the fact that TCBA did an assessment of the HIPAA requirements,” says Marlo Young, vice president of the Vactor Co., a losing bidder that did not appeal the contract award.

“It’s sour grapes,” responds Jeanne Clarke Harris, a spokesperson for Thompson. “We don’t anticipate any problems whatsoever.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

On the morning of April 2, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil presided over one of those marathon budget hearings. Brazil chairs the council’s Committee on Economic Development and seemed somewhat alert when he called public witnesses for testimony on the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Brazil read aloud from the list. He asked Rene Wallis to come forward.

A man approached.

“Mr. Wallis?” Brazil inquired.

Charles Allen explained that he was testifying on behalf of Wallis, a female colleague at the D.C. Primary Care Association. Before Allen launched into his statement on the commission’s pursuit of major-league baseball, the chair offered a point of clarification: “When I said ‘Rene,’ well, that’s French,” Brazil informed Allen. “I’m a little ticked off at the French these days. So I’m glad, Charles, that you’re here.”

Luckily, the morning breezed along without appearances from Ward 8 pol Jacque Patterson or CFO spokesperson Clarice Nassif Ransom. And during the Washington Convention Center Authority’s portion of the hearing, there was no talk of how the city’s new monolith works within Pierre L’Enfant’s city plan.

.Former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. is “in the process” of getting a divorce from his wife, Cora Masters Barry. The split hardly comes as a surprise to D.C. political observers.

Last spring Barry was in the midst of a council campaign when U.S. Park Police found him in his Jaguar on a deserted street in Southwest. Officers reported finding trace amounts of marijuana and crack cocaine in the car. A few days after that, word spread around town that Cora Masters Barry had booted her husband out of their urban fortress on Raleigh Street SE in Ward 8.

The new, bachelor version of the four-term mayor now lives in an apartment on Douglas Place SE, “with great views of the city,” according to the longtime civic booster.

Barry says the divorce is “amicable.”

And will Barry, unburdened by marital obligations, find time for another campaign? “I’m not making any plans to run for city council or mayor,” he says.

Watch out, Eleanor Holmes Norton! CP

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