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If the D.C. public schools ever experience a shortage of creative-writing instructors, their recruiters should turn to D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who is proving eminently qualified to teach such a class. After all, Cafritz has spun some fantastic tales about the school system’s budget over the past few months.
Cafritz even has the writerly lingo down. “We have a narrative and a plan attached to everything we do,” she testified before the D.C. Council Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation last Friday, Jan. 18.
Cafritz’s story arc begins back in September, when D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi unearthed an $80 million deficit in the fiscal-year 2001 budget. The school board president denied overspending, presenting her own reports that showed a budget surplus of $93.5 million. “I don’t believe we have an $80 million deficit because we have not received any paperwork that says that,” Cafritz told the Washington Times on Oct. 20.
Cafritz was right: The deficit later turned out to be $98.2 million.
Only a few weeks after the shortfall was verified, Cafritz’s school board unanimously approved a 2003 budget totaling $979 million—more than $300 million above both the current year’s $658 million budget and the forecast suggested by the school system’s uniform per-pupil funding formula.
The National Education Association reports the national average per-pupil funding as $6,627. Given the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)’s current student enrollment figure of 68,000, the Cafritz number would allocate $14,400 per pupil in 2003. That would justify renaming the school system the Sidwell Friends Public Schools.
On-again, off-again Cafritz supporter Mayor Anthony A. Williams and councilmembers knew that Cafritz had chutzpah, but they didn’t realize it might cost $1 billion. Cafritz, meanwhile, insisted that everyone was on the same page: “The board is working with the city CFO, the mayor, and the city council to align the school’s budget with the city’s in a way that best serves the schools’ needs,” Cafritz testified before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the District of Columbia on Dec. 7.
When city officials remained nonplussed, Cafritz exhibited the very traits that her detractors tried to highlight in the 2000 elections—namely, that she’s a dictator with no appetite for consensus politics. First, she and DCPS Superintendent Paul L. Vance on Jan. 14 threatened to take their case directly to Capitol Hill, the default move of all local pols who can’t stick up for their own causes. The notion was to have Congress amend the city’s 2001 budget to cover the shortfall.
Then they asked that the District’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) remain open until Congress clears up the deficit. “To ask that the CAFR be delayed left me in wonderment,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
And in a fit of budgetary hardball, Cafritz even threatened a systemwide furlough, which would have shortened the school year by seven days. The mayor and other elected officials called bullshit. Cafritz announced that she and the board had no other option.
Last week, as reported in the Washington Times, WUSA Channel 9, and other media, Cafritz and school system officials again floated the idea of a furlough, this time for 13 days, while at the same time announcing that they would work as hard as possible to see that the furlough not happen.
At the council hearing, Cafritz received a lecture on the limits of her rhetoric: “You just can’t say that the mayor and the council don’t support public education if they don’t give us a billion dollars,” Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous told Cafritz.
“That’s hearsay,” Cafritz responded.
LL prefers to call it public record. Two evenings prior, at the Jan. 16 school-board meeting, Cafritz defended the inflated budget in the name of disadvantaged children and broken infrastructure. “Since we voted on that budget, most members of the board of education have been lobbied heavily by the mayor’s office and his people and a couple of city councilmembers,” Cafritz told her fellow board members. “The mayor and certain city councilmembers want to go out in the public arena—in the arena of parents, in the arena of school supporters—and say that we fully funded education. That is a tag line they’ve used for the last three years. They know it isn’t true.”
The board later scaled back its budget in a 3-to-5 vote, opting to request approximately $866 million instead of $979 million.
Looking back at the $1 billion grab, Cafritz offered no regrets. “I was fully aware and hopefully mentally competent,” she told her colleagues.
For D.C. Cable Channel 13 addicts like LL, D.C. Council oversight hearings offer hours of entertaining must-see TV. At their best, the public proceedings rival any episode of the popular CBS drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Sharp-witted investigators dig deep into the inner workings of the D.C. government, examining municipal crime scenes to find exactly where the bodies are buried.
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Channel 13’s thriller programming was at its best during Jan. 17’s Committee on Government Operations hearing. After sitting through the entire six-and-half-hour marathon, LL had learned the following about D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox:
* The inspector general prefers to bunk with his wife rather than his son (courtesy of Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange).
* Maddox puts his “head down on a pillow at night in the District” an average of three to four times a week (courtesy of At-Large Councilmember David Catania).
* The city’s chief watchdog is “an avid jogger, and no one in Logan Circle ever sees him jog”—but neighbors of Maddox’s part-time residence in Upper Marlboro do. A lot (courtesy of D.C. Watch Executive Director Dorothy Brizill).
* Maddox drives a car with vanity license plates (also courtesy of Brizill).
* The inspector general has not moved his “favorite chair” to his District condominium, but he has acquired 99 percent of the furnishings and has recently repainted the condo and replaced its rugs. He has also purchased furniture recently for another dwelling, in Ocean City (also courtesy of Orange).
So what do these intimate tidbits have to do with the business of the people?
As a senior government official, Maddox is required to live in the District. And technically he does. The city’s chief investigator claims as his principal residence a two-bedroom Logan Circle condominium that he shares with his grown son. But his wife, Dr. Yvonne T. Maddox, resides on a “17-acre estate” the couple purchased in Upper Marlboro. According to the city’s tax records, the condo is classified as non-owner-occupied. This fact troubles the great ethicists on the council.
“Clearly, I would think you would desire to be at the ranch, especially after a long day—especially after a long day like today,” Orange posited at the hearing. “If I was you, I’d go to a 17-acre estate where it’s nice, quiet, and peaceful—as opposed to being down in Logan Circle where who knows what’s going on!”
Now there’s the voice of a true urbanite!
Persnickety councilmembers also tediously questioned Maddox’s term of office and his legal credentials. In between the nitpicking, they imparted what was really on their minds: the inspector general’s sluggishness in releasing a report on questionable fundraising activities in the executive office of the mayor. With election season fast approaching, mayoral detractors have called upon him to issue his findings, but he has yet to release any kind of timeline.
The back file was not unknown to Maddox. “One reason everyone is pissed off at me is that I refuse to compromise this investigation,” he stated, in response to a question from Catania.
Orange, who chairs the council committee, denies any political motivation in the scrutiny of the inspector general as well as the hearing’s timing. He says he called the hearing as soon as he realized that Maddox’s term might expire Jan. 15. According to Orange, Maddox is completing a term begun by former Inspector General E. Barrett Prettyman Jr.; Maddox contends that he received a six-year appointment from the mayor, confirmed by the control board, that expires in May 2005.
Council conspiracy theorists believe that the focus on Maddox’s integrity is hardly coincidental. If Maddox’s own ethics come under fire, then the Williams fundraising report will be largely discredited, as well. And no matter how damning the findings at that point, the administration benefits.
“I’m beginning to feel like Ken Starr,” Maddox blurted at one point in the afternoon.
* Though Chavous remains coy about any 2002 mayoral aspirations, random D.C. residents have received calls asking them to participate in a poll testing incumbent Williams’ vulnerability in the upcoming Democratic primary. The 24-question poll asks participants to share their feelings about the mayor’s fundraising imbroglio and the closing of D.C. General Hospital, among other topics.
The poll repeats four times, at various intervals: Would you vote for Chavous or Williams?
“I don’t know who’s doing the poll,” Chavous tells LL. The runner-up in 1998’s mayoral race does admit to setting up an exploratory committee. “I’m doing research. I’m not getting into what I’m doing right now,” he adds.
* When electoral longevity handed At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil chairmanship of the Committee on Economic Development, many council observers worried whether Brazil would have the wherewithal to lead the powerful legislative committee.
LL puts all those doubts to rest: Last week, Brazil sponsored a tour to promote the return of D.C.’s Restaurant Week.
Who else possesses the whimsy to entice heavies like Oliver Carr and Doug Jemal to do a pub crawl? “This is to invite you to join me at the end of the ‘Brazil Business Buffet’ at Clyde’s of Georgetown,” Brazil wrote to his fellow legislators in a memo dated Jan. 15. “I invite you to join us for a cocktail.”
* Almost every month, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Roscoe Grant Jr. welcomes a guest speaker to ANC 7B’s meeting. In October, the guest of honor was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Roscoe C. Howard, who spoke about the grand-jury process. In December, Yavocka Young and Lisa Bolden of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp. shared with Hillcrest and Penn-Branch neighbors a plan to build an assisted living facility at 27th and R Streets SE.
So whom has Grant invited for February?
George W. Bush.
Grant did not specify a topic for discussion. “I would like to extend an opportunity for you to be the guest speaker at our February, March, or April ANC meeting,” he wrote to the president, in a letter dated Jan. 7. “We meet the 3rd Saturday of each month from 10 a.m.-12 noon at Ryland Methodist Church, 3200 S Street SE.”
The White House has yet to RSVP. CP
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