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When the control board seized power over the D.C. schools last November, it attempted to turn the schools’ headquarters into a newfangled Officers’ Club. The board replaced replaced superintendent Franklin Smith with Gen. Julius Becton and placed Gen. Charles Williams in the key post of facilities manager.
And in its tidy org-chart, the control board members made the newly installed generals directly accountable to them. Their mistake was neglecting to include D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian in their chain of command.
Now they are paying the price for their insubordination.
At least once a week, Williams, Becton’s deputy and the D.C. school system’s embattled roof repair commander, must report to Courtroom 215, where Christian delivers a stern dressing-down for leaky roofs, flooded basements, and fire-safety hazards.
For Williams, the sessions are a lot like having the judge rub coarse sandpaper over his balding head while he pretends to enjoy the abuse. Otherwise, the no-nonsense Christian, at the first sign of resistance from the general, might throw away the sandpaper, grab a steel-wire brush, and really go to work.
Christian had Williams back in her dimly lit courtroom this past Monday to answer for the maintenance problems that forced the closings of Ballou High School, Bell Multi-Cultural High School, and Paul Junior High under orders from the judge. Christian told Williams the court wanted no more “ambushes” or “surprises,” and demanded to know which schools would be threatened next by such problems.
“It comes as a surprise to everyone but you. So tell the court what you know. There should be no surprises,” Christian instructed Williams.
The general replied that at least 40 schools whose roofs were not replaced during August and September have the potential for springing leaks that would force the schools’ closing under the judge’s order barring roof repairs on occupied school buildings. Because of the age and decrepitude of the city’s 146 schools, Williams admitted the problems could surface anytime, anywhere.
During these sessions with Christian, Williams looks like the unprepared student called before the class to recite his homework assignment. He keeps resorting to vague, bureaucratic language that might get him by at the Pentagon or at a D.C. Council hearing, but the mumbo jumbo leads him deeper into trouble in Christian’s courtroom. She appears ready to pounce on his every word and quickly demands to know what he means when he uses terms like “revising down” or “stretching out” repair schedules.
At one point this past Monday, Williams turned to D.C. Public Schools legal counsel Cecilia Wirtz for help in answering a question from Christian. But the judge wouldn’t allow it.
“No, I need your testimony, Gen. Williams,” Christian ordered.
When she asked for the cost of roof repairs on a specific school, Williams could not provide the figure.
Williams: “I don’t have that in front of me.”
Christian: “So you don’t know that.”
Christian at the moment wields much more power over the school system than its putative leaders: the control board, its appointed emergency school board, and Becton. No one understands that better than Williams, who has been handed command of a 10-year, $218-million school modernization program. At each meeting with Christian, Williams plugs his plans not only to replace bad roofs but also to install new boilers, windows, and “chillers”his term for heating and air conditioning systems.
The diminutive Williams, who seems to get smaller each time he has to come before the scolding judge, claims he can’t do his job unless Christian chills out a bit and gives him freer rein. He says he can’t even punch a hole in the ceiling to install new wiring without prior approval from Christian.
Control board officials privately grouse that Christian has overstepped her judicial bounds. They point to suburban school systems in affluent Fairfax and Montgomery counties, where repairs are made while students attend classes. And they say that the judge is misusing D.C. fire inspectors to do the job that rightly belongs to building inspectors, who are more qualified to judge when a school is safe for students.
Christian briefly tinkered with leniency under the Smith regime. She allowed the superintendent to cordon off sections of crumbling school buildings and hold classes in other areas. When Smith failed to complete the repairs, however, Christian resorted to closing the schools as a way of forcing action.
In an article in last Sunday’s Outlook section of the Washington Post, Becton continued his public relations campaign to get out from under Christian’s gavel. Becton’s strategy is to pressure advocacy group Parents United to drop its lawsuit against the school system over fire-code violations. “Parents United keeps us in courtas if to prove that it alone cares about the safety of D.C. schoolchildren,” Becton wrote. And appointed school trustee Maudine Cooper told the Washington Afro-American that Parents United was a front for “a select few Ward 3 schools.” Dropping the lawsuit, Becton and Cooper argue, would strip Christian of her prerogative to force a school to close just because a basement room has water seeping in, as happened at Bell last week.
But after watching Christian in court this week, LL is sure the mother of a Deal Junior High student would find a way to keep her grip on Williams and Co., even without the help of Parents United.
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The public doesn’t blame Christian for the constant specter of school closings over a drop of water here, a wiring snafu there. A spokesperson for Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, a member of the council’s education committee and the councilmember most visible on the school crisis, said the office has not received a single complaint about Christian’s hard line.
And Parents United was back in Christian’s court this week vowing to continue its lawsuit. Without the pressure of the lawsuit, the school reform group believes D.C. building inspectors wouldn’t even conduct the annual inspection of school buildings now required by law because they failed to do so in previous years.
So Williams will have to go back before the judge again next week to explain his actions, or lack of them. The beleaguered general was reportedly on the verge of resigning last month, until Becton talked him out of the brash move.
LL can just imagine Becton’s plea to his top aide: “Charlie, pull yourself together. We can’t let ’em split up us generals. Otherwise, the war will be lost. You got to suck it in, man, and get back out there.”
Easy for Becton to say. He doesn’t have to face Christian.
The judge this week expanded her scope, ordering Williams to provide her with his original school repair plan, plus a revised plan that takes into account her order barring repair work while schools are occupied, and an interim plan to follow until the revised plan is in place.
Christian: “Have you prioritized?”
Williams: “We have.”
Christian: “What is the priority?”
Williams? “They’re in the plan.”
Christian: “What plan? The one that hasn’t been revised? The court will require that she be supplied with the revised plan.”
And Williams had best obey orders, or the court will revise his career plans.
SOULSBY ON ICE
D.C. Police Chief Larry Soulsby last week announced a major initiative to revive his discredited and dismantled homicide department. The chief plans to equip each detective with a “homicide kit” that includes a tape recorder, computer, and camera.
Apparently, the homicide detectives previously had to get by with crayons and sketch pads.
Supplying what long ago should have been standard equipment for a big-city homicide squad will hardly restore public confidence shattered by recent devastating disclosures: The homicide department closes only one in three murder cases, four dozen detectives haven’t solved a single murder this year, obvious leads that could have closed 136 cases went ignored, and detectives are more interested in collecting overtime than in collecting evidence, and may have committed fraud to fatten their paychecks.
Such damning disclosures are convincing many that the District hasn’t yet hit rock bottom on its 4-year-old downward spiral.
The uproar over the failures of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD’s) homicide unit also exposed for full public view Soulsby’s almost total lack of support within the department. Cops now openly bad-mouth “Lyin’ Larry,” not caring who might be within earshot.
Supporters of former homicide commander William “Lou” Hennessy, whom Soulsby replaced when he became chief two years ago, have seized upon the latest findings to escalate their two-year campaign to trash the chief. Hennessy loyalists, led by former assistant U.S. Attorney David Schertler, claim that the homicide closure rate was nearly 60 percent under Hennessy, even though most of the 136 cases with unfollowed leads occurred on his watch.
Inside the department, the support network for former deputy police chief Bill Sarvis, demoted to captain for his alleged involvement in a fencing operation, also faulted Soulsby for the shortcomings of homicide. These officers still believe that Soulsby made a deal with Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. to step aside for Sarvis, the highest ranking black officer on the force, once Sarvis completed his master’s in public administration at Bowie State.
That event would have occurred last January, but Sarvis was implicated four months earlier for moving hot computers and stereos through his office to other officers on the force. Sarvis supporters still contend he was somehow set up by Soulsby to remove the chief’s only rival within the department.
Now, Soulsby’s support network consists of powerful outsiders, including Rep. Tom Davis, chair of the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on the District, Stephen Harlan, control board vice chair in charge of police reforms, and Booz-Allen & Hamilton consultants Gary Mather and Chip Stewart, who have been closely advising Soulsby on revamping his department.
Mather and Stewart are constantly at Soulsby’s side during public appearances and would probably take him down with a tranquilizer gun if he started going off-message. And Harlan is auditioning to become the chief’s guardian angel; he recently warned Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose to stop calling for Soulsby’s resignation.
When Soulsby testified before Davis’ subcommittee Sept. 26, he stumbled through his prepared testimony and finally gave up trying to read it. The chief cited a cold as the reason. But some observers in the audience suspected otherwise.
“It struck me as a combination of the cold and the fact that he hadn’t seen the testimony before,” noted Dorothy Brizill of D.C. Watch, a fledgling community watchdog group.
Brizill suspects that Soulsby and the other witnesses read testimony prepared and “homogenized” by Booz-Allen consultants.
Soulsby’s almost exclusive reliance on Booz-Allen for advice threatens to rob him of him of needed allies like Brizill, who once favored his stated emphasis on community policing. But the chief and Booz-Allen haven’t practiced what they preach.
Soulsby and his consultants redrew MPD’s precinct maps in the spring, replacing squad car beats with larger Police Service Areas (PSAs). The move wiped out the community beat organizations that citizens spent years organizing, especially on Capitol Hill.
The chief promised that officers assigned to the PSAs would remain there for two years to get to know residents and community leaders. But last month, Soulsby pulled the best and the brightest from the PSAs to rebuild his homicide department.
Police sources say this move was also orchestrated by Booz-Allen’s Mather, who requested a list of quality officers from each PSA.
“I don’t think it helps to keep propping up Soulsby,” says Brizill. “A police department has to function on a high degree of military discipline and esprit de corps. Those two have broken down completely.”
Soulsby may be busy rearranging the deck chairs, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that the good ship MPD is hard against the rocks.CP
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