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On Sept. 17, chatter among colleagues on the ninth floor of 825 North Capitol St. NE began with some version of this: “Have you read it?” That morning, a Washington Post editorial reported the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) faced drastic cuts because of the city’s projected $323 million revenue shortfall for fiscal year 2003. “Wasting no time, city financial officials advised school board leaders yesterday to prepare two versions of a revised budget in which the school system would lose $95 million or $75 million,” it read.
The news came as news to some of those very same schools leaders. In fact, the editorial launched a budgetary inquisition of sorts at the DCPS central office, with phone calls going back and forth between school-board members and staff, city financial gurus, and the mayor’s office. The quest: to find out exactly where the $75 million and $95 million budget targets had come from.
The numbers even shocked the city’s top numbers guy: D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi.
One week later, no one knows the provenance of the mystery numbers. So LL put together a list of possible culprits:
* Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. In his never-ending quest to keep income taxes down, Evans can always find fat to trim in agency budgets. Weeks ago, he mentioned cutting $100 million from the $771 million schools budget. But by the time of the Post editorial, he had scaled that figure back to $50 million.
* Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The guy was attending a function for mayors in Greece at the time of the editorial. Even when he’s at the Wilson Building, he’s not known for digging into the minutiae of school politics.
* D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Stirring up public sentiment against school budget cuts is currently the school-board president’s No. 1 priority. “She basically made [the numbers] up,” says one city official familiar with the budget negotiations.
“Those specific numbers for the article did not come from me,” Cafritz told LL on Tuesday.
* Post editorialist Colbert I. King. Every opinion writer likes to pack a little pop in his crusade against local big shots. Why not just toss a couple of numbers in there, just to stir things up?
King expressed surprise at Cafritz’s denial. “She said that?” King asked LL. “Was she laughing?”
Cafritz later called LL and explained that she had been “flustered” when LL asked her about the numbers the day before. She then admitted that she had talked to King on Sept. 16, after meeting with Gandhi about the budget.
Sources notwithstanding, the talk of steep schools cuts sure has galvanized Cafritz and her colleagues. The budget crisis supplied all the fireworks at a Sept. 18 school-board meeting. “The target seems to be moving,” Cafritz told the crowded meeting room. She mentioned that Williams had previously told Superintendent Paul Vance that he would hold the school system “harmless.” When she spoke to Williams before his junket to Greece, however, the mayor reported that he had made a promise he couldn’t keep.
In the 21 months she’s headed D.C.’s hybrid school board, Cafritz has made many enemies. But her colleagues rallied around a school system that they considered under assault that Wednesday night. “I personally was outraged by the assertion of the CFO and the city council that they were justified in taking the largest amounts from children,” inveighed mayorally appointed board member Charles Lawrence. “I’m tired of people in this city coming after the school system like they’re coming after some inanimate bureaucracy….The children should be held harmless. We’ve already taken too much out of their flesh.”
“We’re living in a sea of sharks that puts politics over kids,” railed board Vice President William Lockridge, who represents Wards 7 and 8. “Call your city-council member, get on the phone, and disrupt their day!”
Cafritz placed her own exclamation point at the end of the speechifying. “Because 65 percent of our children live east of the river, they seem to be rendered less important,” she stormed. “Shame on us all if we do not step forward!”
For Cafritz, “stepping forward” means volunteering no help in reducing the city’s projected shortfall. Her resistance to austerity stems in part from the school system’s so-called structural deficit. No matter how many spending freezes they impose, central-administration middle managers they pink-slip, and summer-school dollars they cut, schools officials say they still end up $30 million to $45 million in the hole.
To Cafritz’s way of thinking, any budget cuts come on top of the mysterious “structural deficit,” compounding the system’s funding woes. The result of additional cuts, she says, might be furloughs, reduced athletic programs and pre-kindergarten, and no summer school. Schools officials even put school closings on the table in discussions at the end of last week.
On Monday, Mayor Williams presented his $323 million gap-closing proposal to the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly. The plan would shave $30.2 million in proposed school funding—a subcomponent of a four-part plan that contemplates postponing fiscal year 2003 spending increases ($98.9 million), cutting agency budgets ($104.6 million), raising taxes ($72 million), and increasing government fees ($47.6 million).
In contrast to his demeanor during other political crises, Williams seemed at ease selling his fiscal emergency plan to locals. After all, a revenue shortfall was a predicament the mayor could explain to D.C. voters in easy-to-understand bureaucratese with the help of a few line graphs or Excel spreadsheets.
Williams used this fireside-chat approach to explain the schools cut: The savings, he said, would come about from delaying increases in the school system’s per-pupil funding formula. “In our city, if you limit someone’s increase, it’s called a cut,” joked the mayor. “You will learn from the schools that this will end life in Western civilization.”
A few Southwesters even laughed.
* In this year’s primary, candidates often relied on District heavies for advice and counsel. The Rev. Willie F. Wilson learned a thing or two about running for mayor from Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. At-Large hopeful Beverly Wilbourn received advice from uberlobbyist David Wilmot. And At-Large incumbent Phil Mendelson’s re-election bid benefited from a consigliere who goes by the name of Charles King.
King’s pivotal role in the Mendelson campaign came to light when King posted a message on the D.C. politics e-mail discussion group themail, stating that Mendelson’s decision to keep Klingle Road closed to auto traffic had caused little electoral repercussion. Advocates of re-opening the Northwest road had promised to make Mendelson pay at the polls.
A few days later, Re-Open Klingle Road proponent Paul McKenzie unmasked “King” as Mendelson’s primary-campaign manager, Chuck Thies. “I said to myself, The way this guy writes is very similar to Phil Mendelson’s campaign manager,” says McKenzie. When McKenzie cross-referenced King’s e-mail address with Thies’, McKenzie got a hit.
Thies denies that he’s King. “Throughout the course of my employ as campaign manager to Phil Mendelson, ‘Charles King’ advised me on political matters of potential consequence and controversy in DC,” Thies explained in a recent e-mail. “King agreed to offer his insight in exchange for guaranteed anonymity.”
LL decided to ask Mendelson how much he had benefited from King’s advice.
Did King ever consult him directly?
No, Mendelson told LL.
Did King ever e-mail him?
No, Mendelson admitted.
Did he even know King existed at all?
“If I had any interaction, I don’t remember until last week,” Mendelson told LL. “I asked Chuck, and Chuck said it was not him. I think I have to accept things on their face.”
“I suppose, looking at it from a number
of vantage points, it poses peculiarities,” Thies says. “From my vantage point, it all makes sense.”
* In a crowded election field, candidates often struggle to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. In an effort for voters to get to know her, as well as to stress the importance of literacy, District 3 school-board hopeful Sunday Abraham has included a personal reading list in her campaign literature.
After perusing the selections, LL, sadly, couldn’t lay claim to having read one title. Abraham’s eclectic reading list includes Jeffrey Satinover’s Cracking the Bible Code, Janet Folger’s 30 Seconds to Common Sense, and Kay Coles James’ What I Wish I’d Known Before I Got Married. LL detected certain leitmotifs in Abraham’s wordly pursuits, including intense interests in biblical studies and health. Those nicely converge elsewhere in the list, in Don Colbert’s What Would Jesus Eat? and The What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook.
Abraham’s emphasis on diet might have something to do with a book further down on her reading list: Porter Shimer’s Too Busy to Exercise.
* As underdog candidates head down the stretch to Election Day, some opt to go negative on the front-runner to make up critical ground. Yet when the votes are tallied, whatever the outcome, the dueling candidates often make conciliatory gestures toward each other. Especially in a primary.
That political axiom hasn’t held up in Ward 3, where incumbent Kathy Patterson trounced challenger Erik Gaull 73 percent to 26 percent in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.
This week, Patterson supporter Ross Eisenbrey introduced a resolution for consideration to the Ward 3 Dems condemning Gaull under the guise of encouraging full and fair debate. It requested that future candidates seeking the Ward 3 endorsement not engage in negative campaigning. “Be it further resolved that Erik Gaull, who engaged in negative campaigning during the recent primary, be called upon to apologize for his unfair, inaccurate and misleading attacks on Councilmember Kathy Patterson, our nominee,” the resolution read.
Eisenbrey later removed the Gaull paragraph from the resolution, which passed by a voice vote.
“It’s time for people to just get beyond this,” says Gaull. “We have to do party-building instead of party-tearing activities. Get over it.”
* D.C. Board of Education District 2 Representative Dwight E. Singleton made a very public exit from the Sept. 18 board meeting, right as the agenda moved on to the president’s report as well as “member business,” in which board members fill the public in on their own goings-on. Singleton was escorted out of the meeting by his wife, Deborah Singleton.
On Sept. 14, police had responded to a call at Singleton’s house and arrested the school-board rep on a domestic-violence charge. The U.S. Attorney’s Office “no-papered” the case after Deborah Singleton chose not to pursue the matter.
Before leaving the room, Singleton politely introduced his wife to many in attendance, including LL. CP
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