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D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is a firm believer in the District’s unique separation of powers doctrine. Under the city’s home rule charter, Ackerman isn’t accountable to the mayor and is barely answerable to the D.C. Council, though it determines how much money the schools get. The superintendent’s only boss, in fact, is the out-to-lunch D.C. financial control board, which seized control of the schools in November 1996.
D.C.’s official flow chart provides Ackerman a written excuse for blowing off kid-oriented events held by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. For example, when the mayor on Jan. 5 announced his plan to recast the elected Board of Education, Ackerman stayed away. Nor did she show at the March 6 State of the District Address, at which Williams outlined his bold education plan—and which the mayor held on Ackerman’s own turf at Ballou High School. She also bagged out on the mayor’s Monday afternoon budget briefing but did send her deputy, Elois Brooks. (Aides say the superintendent has been out of town recently to tend to her ill father.)
Family emergencies notwithstanding, Ackerman has never rushed to huddle with the denizens of One Judiciary Square. Of course, the superintendent does have a pretty busy job. Intimidating principals and teachers, denying information requests and heaping calumny on charter schools, after all, can tie up even the most efficient administrator 16 hours a day.
In the year to come, however, Ackerman must add another duty to her position description: warding off an increasingly meddlesome mayor.
These days, Williams sounds ready to run for superintendent himself. “This budget is an education budget. We will settle for nothing less than the best education system of any major city in the U.S.,” Williams said to a packed One Judiciary Square press room on Monday. When offered the chance to rail against D.C. Council proposals for further tax cuts, the mayor articulated the sacrifices in ABCs: “No tax cut is worth losing our best teachers to Maryland and Virginia,” said Williams.
In case you missed it, that was a bit of hardball politicking from a mayor whose ineptitude at coalition-building is matched only by his skill at swiping bureaucratic real estate from administrative rivals, like Ackerman.
In light of Williams’ either/or gambit, councilmembers who champion tax cuts must now defend themselves against charges that they oppose the education goodies in the mayor’s budget: a fully funded $749 million allotment for the schools, a 3 percent pay hike for teachers, 30 new principals, 100 new teachers, $100 million for school renovations, and $5 million for the University of the District of Columbia’s endowment.
Small wonder that there’s no line item to move Ackerman’s office to Uruguay. Ackerman may not realize it yet, but the “education budget” marks Williams’ debut as a day-to-day overseer of the D.C. public schools—and signals that the pair will be at each other’s throats just as surely as the mayor rumbled with past colleagues like Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and former Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett. As the mayor’s budget materials state, he is now putting the “full weight of his office” behind education reform. Translation: Ackerman had better forward her cell phone and beeper calls to the mayor’s office.
On the record, Ackerman basks in all the attention coming from the 11th floor. “Your willingness to invest in our young people, as a priority, shows a visionary commitment to an improved quality of life for our city and our future,” wrote the schools chief in a March 13 letter to Williams. In her back-channel interactions with the mayor’s office, however, she has regarded the mayor’s sudden activism less as a “visionary commitment” and more as a simple pain in the ass.
“Well, she hasn’t had a boss in years,” says an administration aide who requested anonymity. Technically, that’s wrong: The control-board-appointed Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees oversees Ackerman, a prerogative that it hasn’t yet felt compelled to use. “It’s just a sorority
party,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose about the appointed board. This week, that board collapsed when six of its members resigned over an order from control board Chair Alice Rivlin forcing Ackerman to fork over a school building to a start-up charter school.
For Ackerman and her lackeys, taking orders from Rivlin is nothing compared to what life will be like under a more involved Williams. The mayor, after all, won’t just watch from the mezzanine while Ackerman decides what to do with her fat budget. Take, for example, his pledge to recruit 30 more principals for the school system. “She’s not saying she’s going to find them,” notes Ambrose. “He’s saying he’s going to find them.”
Williams and Ackerman may well disagree on who the 30 savior-principals should be. Better yet, they may tussle over how far to lower hiring standards to lure quality talent to a school system that routinely stiffs its employees on paychecks. With exclusive operational control over the schools, Ackerman could overrule Williams on his choices, but because he’s her best hope for a fully funded reform program, that would be an unwise tack. Perhaps they should consider the coin toss.
The two have a lot in common. Reformers initially associated in the public mind with congressional control of D.C., both are outsiders with ass-kicking bureaucratic reputations. All of which will make it harder for them to clarify their rules of engagement in the ongoing dispute over Ackerman’s management acumen.
Although Williams late last year declared that Ackerman was doing a “good job”—a step down from the “great job” that he touted a year earlier—he has publicly recommended that she hire a chief operations officer to ensure that her reforms are reaching each of the city’s 146 schools. The recommendation is a not-so-circuitous way of telling Ackerman she’s screwing up; it also plays on the weaknesses of a woman who delegates authority like her family jewels.
“We’re working on how this is going to work out,” said Williams when asked on Monday about the search for an operations chief.
In the best of all worlds, this year’s campaign to reform school governance would spell clear lines of authority among Ackerman, Williams, and the council. It won’t do anything of the sort. If approved later this year in a referendum, the plan passed by the council last month—to create a school board with four appointed members and five elected members—will perpetuate the convoluted status quo. Although Williams at one point lobbied for control over the superintendent, he backed off that position just before the council took its final vote on the matter. “In my original bill,” recalls Ambrose, “I gave him that power. Then he told everyone he didn’t want to do that. I just couldn’t understand it.”
If councilmembers can’t connect the dots, their constituents probably won’t have much better luck. In presenting his new education proposals, Williams has repeatedly asked the public to hold him accountable for improving schools citywide. One problem: He still lacks the authority to deliver on his promises. The result is a scary prospect, in which the mayor becomes a sort of big-time version of ankle-biting schools activist Westy Byrd—that is, someone with enough power to screw things up but not enough to improve the schools.
“[Ackerman] is in a strange situation,” says Mary Levy of the advocacy group Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. “She has about 10 people looking over her shoulder, and none of them can really do anything.”
During its 24 years under Barry and interregnal mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, the District established a great tradition of budgetary fraud. The hi-jinks usually involved claiming bogus revenues, underreporting expenses, and otherwise telling blatant lies to Congress and Wall Street. In a development that augurs well for the city’s political self-determination, most of the chicanery has lapsed under a new D.C. Council and Mayor Williams, the city’s first chief financial officer.
Or so LL thought. In his recent budget submission, Williams seems newly intent on honoring the mendacious heritage that comes with the Seal of the District of Columbia. For the second straight year, the mayor is trying to squeeze extra money—$10 million—out of the city’s coffers by claiming big savings from his vaunted “managed-competition” programs. Perfected by former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, managed competition entails forcing municipal government functions—particularly public works tasks like trash collection and tree maintenance—to beat private-sector bidders on cost and service quality.
One year ago, Williams had the temerity to claim that efficiencies from managed competition would net the city upward of $30 million in fiscal year 2000. In one of its less heralded strokes of lucidity, the council shrank the savings projections to zero during the wrangling over the budget for fiscal 2000—the better to avoid having to explain ledger discrepancies to Congress after the fiscal year ends.
Six months into fiscal 2000, Williams’ managed-competition plans have yet to leap from the worksheets of high-priced consultants into the city’s contracts with local labor unions. Over the past two years, the city has spent nearly $1.5 million dispatching consultants—KPMG Peat Marwick has gobbled up much of the pie—to study every aspect of managed competition and train agency personnel to embrace the concept. But just like the control board’s collection of studies on management reform in all District agencies, the reports have now taken their place alongside past D.C. whoppers like the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ Wang computers and Barry’s grand “Transformation Plan.”
When asked whether the mayor’s savings projections are for real, council Chairman Linda Cropp responded, “I haven’t seen any yet, but it may be something I don’t know about.”
At Monday’s news conference, Williams himself had just as much trouble as Cropp in pinpointing progress on one of his early flagship initiatives. “We’re working as hard as we can and as fast as we can to get [managed-competition] agreements,” said the mayor, before repeating an administration mantra that the program is just one element of its campaign to cut the cost of government. “I don’t get up in the morning saying, ‘We have to have managed competition.’”
The mayor should have stopped there. Instead, however, he allowed Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt to step up to the podium and set back public dialogue on the issue by at least one fiscal year. “We have had a lot of productivity improvements on the revenue-production side,” said Holt to a sea of wrinkled brows.
SOMEONE’S GONNA BE IN REALLY BIG TROUBLE
Williams’ people are discovering how hard it is to retract public information. At Wednesday’s D.C. Council budget hearing, aides to Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer followed standard protocol and left copies of Omer’s prepared testimony on a table by the hearing room door. Moments later, staffer Darlene Taylor rushed to retrieve the papers. She even swept copies from the hands of some attendees, including LL.
Suspecting a cover-up, LL quickly asked that his copy be returned. At which point Taylor placed her black leather pump atop her stack of retrieved copies.
LL tried to pull a copy from the stack, but his Jose Canseco-sized forearms were no match for the pressure Taylor’s heel exerted on the pile of public documents. What ensued was an ugly spat between LL and Taylor, in which Taylor accused LL of threatening her with violence. When
Taylor asked Deputy Mayor Norman Dong to shoo the columnist away, Dong punted, ordering Taylor to hand LL only the revised version of
LL scoured the room and found one of the few surviving originals. At first glance, the forbidden document reads like any ho-hum budget primer, full of pledges to improve education, balance the books, and improve services. Buried in the prepared testimony, however, is a reference to a “Mary ‘nice wig’ Levy.”
That would be the same Mary Levy who advises Parents United on school-budget issues—and has been a vocal supporter of the Williams administration. “That’s what I get for bitching so much for information,” said Levy when LL informed her about the slight.
Mayoral Director of Communications Lydia Sermons called the Washington City Paper to explain that the offending remark was the product of late-night goofing by a young staffer whose draft was inadvertently distributed. She said neither Williams nor Omer knew about the reference.
Last LL checked, staffers had calculated that seven copies that included the coiffure reference were still on the loose.CP
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