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In December, D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman assembled a 35-member committee to hammer out a new funding formula for the system’s 146 schools. The current approach, Ackerman had decided, stiffed schools with special needs while it overfunded others. The solution, she said, was a budgetary tool used by the superintendent during her tenure with the Seattle public schoolsthe “weighted student formula,” which allots money to schools on the basis of their enrollment tallies, with extra outlays for students with special needs and higher funding levels for the younger grades.
To get the plan through, Ackerman outfitted her committee with a strange mandate for a public panel: Don’t leak word of the funding proposals to anyone outside the committee.
The gag order, however, didn’t stifle Bell Multicultural High School Principal Maria Tukeva, who committed the shocking indiscretion of discussing Ackerman’s proposal with principals of other District high schools, according to council sources and school-watchers. Tukeva earned a stiff reprimand from downtown for injecting a bit of glasnost into the committee’s deliberations on the subject of how high schools would fare under the new proposals.
“I just cannot talk about these things,” Tukeva told LL, capturing the mind-set of her colleagues. “You know how it is.” LL’s calls to the school system’s administration went unreturned.
It wasn’t until weeks later, however, that parent groups found out how the plan would treat their kids’ schools. But the lowdown still hadn’t come from school system officialdom: An anonymous source on the committee had leaked the documents, unveiling the new funding formula.
To this day, school activists are mum on who broke Ackerman’s embargo. And who can blame them? After all, Ackerman and her deputy, Elois Brooks, have whipped their subordinates into a totalitarian panic, fed by threats, finger-wagging, and wanton use of the superintendent’s unchecked power over the school system.
Forcing a code of silence onto her underlings is just one piece of Ackerman’s PR effort. Another was on display last week, when Ackerman directed principals to muster supportive parents for a pivotal vote on the proposal by the appointed D.C. Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees. Ackerman’s emissaries subsequently packed the hearing room, holding up signs whose grammar bore the imprimatur of D.C. public-school graduates: “Birney ES support [sic] WSF,” “Lincoln Multi-Cultural Middle School support [sic]: The WSF.”
LL now knows what Ackerman means when she speaks of maximizing school system resources.
“She has her team out on the street,” says Wilma Harvey, chair of the elected Board of Education, who argues that the proposal needs clarification before it is enacted. “Sending out her troops to gather support doesn’t sit well with the process. We have to find a new way to do business.”
Not if Ackerman has any say in the matter. Her way of doing business produced a favorable 7-2 vote on the weighted formula by the trustees, who have schools oversight authority thanks to the 1996 control board public-schools takeover. The vote was preceded by a discussion with all the tension of a Supreme Soviet debate on the glory of the worker. With a supportive crowd in tow, the trustees steamrolled objections voiced by Harvey and fellow elected school board member Tonya Vidal Kinlow. In an “executive session” before the public meeting, trustees Chair Maudine Cooper rejected a request by Harvey to incorporate the elected board’s misgivings into the trustees’ resolution. The trustees’ action constitutes approval of the weighted formula’s concept and methodology; Ackerman and the trustees must hammer out the fine points before presenting the entire package to the control board.
At this rate, trustees will soon be approving a resolution requiring art teachers to prepare for the systemwide Arlene Ackerman Portrait Contest.
It’s easy enough to understand the motivation behind Ackerman’s Orwellian information-management tendencies. In addition to her paid school system underlings, Ackerman has two key unacknowledged advisorsthe ghosts of Franklin Smith and Gen. Julius Becton. Like both of her fallen predecessors, Ackerman came to the District with a reputation as a master administrator. Unlike them, she wants to take it with her when she leaves.
Upon arriving in September 1997 as Becton’s chief academic officer, Ackerman watched her patron flounder about trying to bring a measure of order to the city’s schools. To effect change, the administration needed to get its initiatives by the parents, the school boards, the control board, and a school bureaucracy that viewed “reform” as a synonym for “pink slips.” It was a multifront battle that overwhelmed Gen. Becton, making him look like a contemporary version of bumbling Union Gen. George McClellan.
Beyond just suppressing leaks and organizing cheerleaders, Ackerman decided that another way to avoid repeating Becton’s mother of all defeats was to wipe out a front or two before proceeding into battle. Her administration virtually shut parentsthose disagreeable creaturesout of its meetings on the weighted formula plan. Ackerman also opposed a school board hearing on the proposal, attending it only after a great deal of blustering. “We were told, ‘We’re going to make the decisions in this room, and then we’re going to tell the community what we’re doing,’” recalls Mary Levy, a schools budgetary whiz with the advocacy group Parents United, who sat on the weighted formula committee.
Curbing the school administration’s excesses was supposed to be the job of the emergency board of trustees. The control board created the panel in November 1996 to pinch-hit for the inept, greedy elected school board. The idea was to hand-pick a meritocratic emergency panel with a disdain for pettiness and a passion for rigorous oversight. But, as the trustees’ quick vote on the funding formula shows, their performance so far marks a big loss for the cause of postmodern authoritarianism.
If control boarders cared enough to attend a trustees meeting, they’d find the hallmarks of the regime they were hoping to replace: inattention to detail, racially charged language, and an unwillingness to exercise oversight.
The Feb. 10 “public working session” opened with Cooper stressing that “this is a time of crisis.” But the meeting was simply another example of the trustees’ favorite parliamentary prop: the rubber stamp. Taking their cue from Cooper, others on the panel made brief statements in favor of Ackerman’s formula, all the while evincing only a rhetorical understanding of how it would affect the schools. Emily Washington spoke of stopping the “intellectual genocide” that has victimized the city’s poor black children. Peter Gallagher noted that the “concepts [in the weighted formula] make so much sense that I don’t see how we could quarrel with the rationale.”
Perhaps Gallagher and his colleagues would have found a few debatable points if they had held a hearing or allowed any public testimony on the planor listened to their elected counterparts.
With public input in hand, they might have found cause to quarrel with a formula that indiscriminately shafts high schools throughout the city. For example, the Ackerman plan would allot more resources per student to elementary schoolssuch as Janney Elementary School in tony Tenleytown, than to high schools in impoverished neighborhoods, such as Anacostia Senior High School, according to Levy.
Nor does the formula grapple with fundamental questions like how big school and class sizes should be and how many years of science should be taught in high schools. “Those are both costly policy choices that we need to make before we decide what weight to give elementary schools and high schools and so on,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
The array of unanswered questions surrounding the new formula had already prompted the elected board to advocate more work on the plan. In an
8-1 vote on Feb. 9, the day before the appointed trustees cast their votes, the elected board proposed several refinements to the plan, including equal funding for all school levels; supplementary funding for arts, academic, and vocational schools; and special funding for small schools.
Five education-minded D.C. councilmembersPatterson, Kevin Chavous, Sharon Ambrose, Phil Mendelson, and Carol Schwartzsigned a letter on that same day urging the trustees not to approve the weighted formula just yet.
But, like North Korean troops whipped into a frenzy by one of Kim Il Sung’s propaganda speeches, the trustees charged forward. They refused to include any of the elected board’s caveats in their resolution.
The trustees’ vote closed a loop of resentment toward the elected board that runs all the way to the top of the school system. Last week, for instance, Brooks wrote a letter to the board instructing it never to request information from members of her staff. Instead, wrote Brooks, all requests for information must be channeled through Cooper and the emergency trustees. From now on, perhaps the elected board will communicate with school administrators exclusively by FOIA.
The administration’s overall hostility toward the elected board mystifies LL on a number of levels. For starters, it’s not as if the elected boardwhich currently has almost no authority over the school systemposes any obstacle to Ackerman’s agenda. Second, Ackerman’s school system administration may soon have to work with Harvey & Co., since the control board is committed to transferring oversight authority from the appointed trustees to the elected school board by June 30, 2000.
A petty approach to elected authorities would befit a schools administration with a shaky slate of achievements. But that profile doesn’t describe Ackerman’s administrationwhich, after all, has introduced accountability standards, improved student test scores, and fired 48 staffers who had made a mess of the school system’s personnel office. Those achievements have even earned Ackerman praise from D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who elsewhere has raised a ruckus over the city’s penchant for overpaying managers.
Indeed, with Ackerman’s cherished reputation still far above those of her disgraced predecessors, the greatest danger her image now faces may come from D.C. school parents put off by her high-handed ways. Yet even the parents who have tried to access Ackerman’s tightly guarded bunker at 825 North Capitol St. NE aren’t quite ready to give her the Smith-Becton treatmentyet. “I would prefer to work with her, rather than having to go through another start-up,” says Susan Gushue, a Ward 5 parent who will have children in the system until 2015. “But she has to let us in.”
•In his decades of experience in Ward 5 politics, Bob Artisst has run for office 10-odd times. He’s sought seats on the D.C. Council, the school board, and even his local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC). At the end of most of those campaigns, the career candidate has come face to face with the inflexibility of public elections’ rules: If you don’t get enough votes, you won’t get elected.
However, Artisst has now apparently discovered that the rules governing neighborhood-group elections are a bit more malleable. In December 1997, Artisst won election as president of the Brookland Civic Association, a citizens group in the Northeast neighborhood around Catholic University. Artisst credits himself with promoting neighborhood beautification projects and serving as a spokesperson for the community in the local media.
To the surprise of no one, the president relishes his post enough not to relinquish it. In December, neighbors were set for another annual round of elections to civic association posts. One thing stopped them: There was no December meeting. “He has learned by long experience that he can get away with a lot of stuff, and he puts his effort into doing so,” says Brookland neighbor Philip Blair Jr.
Artisst disputes the no-meeting story, claiming that 25 “regulars” showed up for a “Christmas meeting” that was followed by a buffet for citizens and a collection of toys for charity. And who were those regulars? “I don’t have any right to release the names,” says Artisst. “Maybe some of the women don’t want their ex-husbands to know their addresses.”
Artisst also refuses to disclose whether he remains president of the civic association. “I’m a chartered member. There: You asked a question and I gave you an answer,” he told LL. And was anyone elected to a 1999 post in the civic association? “I will not divulge that to you because you are not going to interview me over the telephone,” he said. LL is in the process of setting up a satellite teleconference interview with the tireless Artisst.
•From Day 1 of his administration, Williams has been promising city residents vastly improved services. Given his hiring patterns, though, he may soon be serving after-dinner mints to citizens visiting government agencies. The trend started with the hiring of David Howard, the former sommelier at the Inn at Little Washington and a manager at Asia Nora and the Grill at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Now here comes freshly hired east-of-the-river liaison Lamont Mitchell, owner of the Imani Cafe in Southeast.
The new mayor may have trouble finding other folks to bring maitre d’ manners to city administration. “I got enough work to do over here,” says Morty Krupin of Krupin’s restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue. “If you manage a restaurant, you manage a restaurant. You’re not gonna do something else.”
“Sid,” proprietor of Comet deli on Columbia Road NW, gave a similar response”Not interested, thank you”before hanging up on LL. He’d have to undergo some telephone training before joining the administration. CP
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