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On Jan. 5, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil profiled as the serious D.C. reformer his campaign literature has always portrayed. At the highly public rollout of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ radical plan to reform the D.C. public school system, Brazil rose before a room packed with educators, students, and activists in order to spit out his best reform-minded platitudes: “The new age of technology is here”; “What we need is bold leadership”; and LL’s favorite, “I’m happy to be here for what might well turn out to be an historic occasion—I can sort of feel that.”
With those words, Brazil signed on to a breathtaking mayoral initiative that would take the city’s longstanding school board, downsize it, replace its elected members with appointed ones, and place it under the purview of the mayor’s office. The mayor is also lobbying for direct oversight over the schools’ superintendent. In effect, the plan would situate the school system alongside other intractable bureaucracies—for example, the Department of Public Works and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—in Williams’ cabinet.
Of course, a few weeks before the TV cameras assembled in the mayor’s press room, Brazil had apparently believed that such “bold leadership” might not, in fact, be necessary. Along with Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, Brazil had introduced a bill that would solve the schools governance crisis by having D.C. voters decide who would serve as the school board’s president. The idea was to head off a repeat of the embarrassing dust-up last summer over the qualifications of the board’s then-president, Wilma Harvey.
“The initial problem with the school board arose over deciding who’s the president,” explains Orange.
At some point soon, Brazil, Orange, and their council colleagues will have to decide between transforming and tweaking. That decision will determine just how big a political victory Williams takes away after the various proposals are sorted out, vetted, and collated. But no matter what the outcome is, the mayor will walk away from the session with a perfect political report card—his first unblemished progress report since taking office one year ago.
Here’s an abridged version, complete with teacher’s comments:
Timing: A+. Williams said nothing about schools governance while the councilmembers were tossing about their marginal reform proposals. Until Williams advanced a solution, the leading proposal came from education committee Chair Kevin Chavous, who advocated slightly shrinking the school board and having the voters choose its president. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose kicked in with formulas for appointed and appointed-elected boards, respectively.
All the bills resulted from extensive hearings on the matter, but none appeared likely to revolutionize how the schools do business. The mayor pounced after the council debate had concluded, and he looked revolutionary in the process.
Lobbying: A+. On the school-governance issue, Williams did something he enjoys about as much as bouncing checks—namely, kissing the asses of councilmembers. Thanks to his preaching about the council’s leadership, the mayor extracted appearances from six councilmembers—Brazil, Patterson, Jack Evans (Ward 2), Phil Mendelson (At Large), Charlene Drew Jarvis (Ward 4), and Jim Graham (Ward 1)—at the Jan. 5 event. An A-list of schools types rounded out the audience, giving the mayor’s proposal a heft that none of the councilmembers could match.
Rhetoric: A+. The mayor eschewed wonkisms for straight shooting about accountability. “Everyone can say [the schools crisis] is not my fault because ‘I don’t control the budget,’ or ‘I don’t hire the superintendent,’” Williams said at the press conference. On the campaign trail, added the mayor, the voters “expected that you’d have something to say and a program to improve the schools.” He even offered a preview of the line he’ll use to change the subject, should statehood advocates rap his scheme as a blow to democracy: “If our high school graduates can’t read a ballot, democracy fails.”
Those three grades explain how the mayor pulled off what may stand as the political coup of Y2K: Williams has forced the council into a reactive mode even though it spent six months leading the debate on schools governance.
Some councilmembers are more comfortable than others in that position. A rundown of the council factions suggests that most—but not all—members are content to let the mayor name the destination, and to then drive halfway there.
* The Grudge Faction: Chavous
The Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation chair has the most to lose from the mayor’s proposal, as he demonstrated in a grouchy press appearance Jan. 3. “I have been waiting for the mayor on this issue,” snapped Chavous, before shooting down the 11th-floor machinations that had leaked to the public after the mayor made New Year’s Eve phone calls to councilmembers. “We should have a fully elected board, and I have never supported the idea of the superintendent reporting to the mayor.”
After batting down the major parts of the mayor’s plan, Chavous noted, “There will be some aspects [of the proposal] that will be passed by the council.” And just what would those be? The “whereas” language? A footnote or two? Chavous didn’t say. But a week and a half later, Chavous hasn’t been able to trot out a single elected ally who shares his hell-no stance.
In the two weeks since dissing the mayor’s plan, Chavous has moderated his posture somewhat, according to his council colleagues. Chavous did not return calls from LL.
* The Half-a-Loafers: Chairman Linda Cropp, Carol Schwartz (At-Large), David Catania (At-Large), Sandy Allen (Ward 8), Mendelson, Orange, Jarvis, and Graham.
This faction can stomach the mayor’s appointing and overseeing the superintendent but not stripping the electorate of its school board ballots. Their numbers—a firm council majority unlikely to be swayed even by the new, charm-school version of Mayor Williams—speak for themselves.
The majority’s compromise position gives Williams the more precious half of his platform—namely, operational control over the schools. The councilmembers, meanwhile, inoculate themselves against campaign-trail charges that they helped dismantle democracy.
* The Hard-Liners: Patterson, Evans, Ambrose
These councilmembers believe that the mayor and the council can choose better school board members than direct elections can. They can cite three decades of blunderous elected school boards, which helped put the schools in the pinch they’re in today. “We need to be bold—we need to be different,” said Evans at the mayoral press conference. But opponents of their stance will be equally right in pointing out that the past 30 years have also furnished ample examples of mayorally appointed, council-confirmed boards lousing things up.
The appointers have some powerful forces on their side: an energized Williams, not to mention the Washington Post editorial page. But LL suspects that they won’t be enough: Though ceding authority over the superintendent represents a knife to the heart of the existing school board, most of this group’s council colleagues won’t be willing to go the final step when a viable compromise exists.
The Anything-Goes Faction: Brazil
Brazil shows great versatility on the schools issue. First off, he needs Williams’ endorsement in his at-large race this year, and he’s supported the mayor on virtually every item before the council, so you could count him among the hard-liners. Then again, he needs council allies to rubber-stamp his poorly conceived legislative projects, so you could also say he’ll probably land among the Half-a-Loafers. And on yet another hand, in front of the right audience, Brazil will proclaim his dogmatic adherence to the home rule charter—meaning it’s premature to rule him out of the Chavous camp. On this issue at least, Brazil has earned his “at-large” title.
Ward 4 Councilmember Jarvis is apparently holding a grudge against the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, a charitable fraternity with a D.C. branch located at 2800 16th St. NW. In last Tuesday’s legislative session, Jarvis helped form the majority in a 7-6 vote that defeated a bill to exempt the Scottish Rite Temple and Foundation from D.C. property taxes.
In isolation, Jarvis’ Scottish Rite vote is unremarkable. However, her anti-fraternity stance came only minutes after she voted as part of a 7-6 majority in favor of legislation exempting a 3rd Street NW chapter of the Improved, Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks of the World from D.C. property taxes.
There must have been fine print in the Scottish bill that kept Jarvis from displaying the even hand expected of a legislator. Impossible, says Ward 1 Councilmember Graham, who sponsored both bills. “They are not similar cases,” says the first-term rep. “They are identical.”
So what could the explanation be? Could Jarvis have been blackballed by the Scottish Rite and welcomed by the Elks? She didn’t return LL’s phone calls.
Whatever her motives, Jarvis’ votes resurrect a D.C. Council that she and her colleagues claim to have left in the last millennium. Through the mid-’90s, the council could always be relied upon to pass special tax breaks, inducements, grants, and whatnot for the pet projects of campaign contributors and, well, campaign noncontributors. This time, however, Jarvis & Co. have done the council of yore one better, making special, special cases of the special cases.
“If we decide that fraternal organizations shouldn’t be paying property taxes, then we should exempt the entire category, not just certain ones,” says At-Large Councilmember Mendelson, who opposed both measures along with Ambrose, Catania, Cropp, Orange, and Patterson. With such a thin majority in their favor, the Elks could well lose their exemption when the council does its second reading of the bill.
The exemption bills for the Scottish Rite and the Elks made a beeline from Graham’s desk through Councilmember Evans’ Committee on Finance and Revenue and onto the full council dais. As originally drafted, the Scottish bill was to forgive the organization its $69,000 property tax bill for 1999, a provision deleted from the final draft; the Elks version was to clear away that group’s $135,000 in unpaid property taxes from 1992 through 1999. And the bills would have exempted both groups from future taxes.
The amnesty was too generous for Office of Tax and Revenue’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, who railed against both bills with an argument that should have appealed to Evans, the council’s No. 1 tax cutter. “The Tax Parity Act, developed through the consensus budget process, is predicated on significant spending reductions, ranging from $40 million in FY 2000 to $80 million in FY 2003,” wrote Gandhi, arguing that the council couldn’t afford to simply waive tax receipts.
Those numbers, nonetheless, couldn’t shake Evans’ belief in special pleading as he and fellow committee members Jarvis and Brazil passed the measures through committee. Members reason that the organizations should get the deals because the law allows tax breaks for organizations that perform charity for D.C. causes. Councilmember Patterson, meanwhile, asked how the Scottish Rite couldn’t afford to pay its taxes but could afford to hire hotshot lobbyist Norman “Chip” Glasgow, of Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, to secure an exemption.
“How else do you do it?” responds Scottish Rite Sovereign Grand Inspector General Charles Iversen. “You can’t accomplish this without knowledgeable help.”
Nor without opportunistic councilmembers. Proponents’ excuses for approving the favoritism are no more persuasive now than they were in the bad old days. When asked to account for his bills, Graham blames predecessor Frank Smith for the nonsense. “All this started back in July 1998,” says Graham, referring to the very legislative shenanigans he denounced in defeating Smith that fall: Smith sponsored legislation conferring special tax perks on the Prince Hall Freemasons and the Eastern Star Charitable Foundation.
When asked why he didn’t propose rolling back previous exemptions so that everyone is treated equally, Graham replies, “No one has ever proposed that.” LL’s still trying to figure out what that means in the secret language of the Loyal Order of Cowed Councilmembers.
Still more entertaining is the disclaimer issued by Evans, who says that since there was a precedent, the committee “reluctantly agreed to do these ones, but no more.” Unless, of course, it’s a really special case. CP
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