Now that the appointed school board and retired Army Gen. Julius Becton have bungled the city’s never-ending school crisis as badly, if not worse, than the deposed elected school board and ousted superintendent Franklin Smith, the following questions beg for answers:
Does Becton, the school system’s equivalent of a superintendent, know that accountability, a word he loves to chant, begins at home?
Is parking an unattended 500-pound propane tank outside the junior high attended by the son of D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian really the best way to convince the hard-line judge that school roofs can be replaced safely while students are attending classes inside?
Should Christian and worried parents be impressed by Becton and Co.’s selection of roofing contractors who fall through the roof (Jefferson Junior High School), cause fires by leaving propane tanks unattended (Nalle and Tyler Elementary Schools), leave open cans of gas sitting around while workers go to lunch (Shaed Elementary School), and put on new roofs that still leak (Shadd Elementary)?
“You get the idea that safety precautions are not being observed very well,” laments Mary Levy of Parents United. The school-reform advocacy group last week joined with the school system it has battled for years in a last-ditch court fight to get the schools opened on time next week while roof repairs are completed.
A three-member D.C. Court of Appeals panel deliberated for only five minutes Aug. 22 before siding with Christian and rejecting the appeal. Senior Judge Theodore Newman Jr. praised the position of attorney Thomas Papson, who stressed that safety considerations require that the schools stay closed while roofs are replaced. Likewise, Newman blasted the District government and Parents United for being insensitive to the well-being of D.C. schoolchildren. The insensitivity charge stunned Parents United officials, who have traditionally fought alone to protect the pupils.
To hear Newman tell it, asking youngsters to attend schools where they could be “scared out of their wits” by propane tanks and 530-degree tar is akin to sending 6- and 7-year-olds to lunch with Hannibal Lecter.
“Our case was put together, generously, in 24 hours,” Levy said sheepishly afterwards. “That’s why it looked like it did.”
It certainly scared Newman and his colleagues into acting decisively.
Levy claimed that Parents United hasn’t been co-opted or compromised by its dubious decision to climb into bed with the Becton administration. Like the misfits he replaced, Becton has demonstrated a nose for shortcuts around thorny management problems. Instead of making sure that the roofs are replaced on time, Becton tried to muscle Parents United into dropping its 1992 suit. That move would strip Christian of her say over school repairs and safety hazards.
“Our fire safety expert assured us that you can replace roofs safely with kids in the building,” Levy, an attorney, said in defense of last week’s futile appeal of Christian’s ruling. “We’re also concerned about what is going to happen with all these children who are likely to be unsupervised for three weeks, and about the message that says roofs are more important than kids.”
As recently as last week, Becton continued pestering Parents United to withdraw its suit and free his administration from Christian, who is providing the only oversight the generalissimo now faces. But Becton, who didn’t let the roof crisis interfere with his July Alaska fishing vacation, is no longer trying to open schools by Sept. 2. Many are betting that Becton won’t meet his Sept. 22 opening date, either, especially if rainy weather sets in over the next few weeks, slowing school repairs.
The delay is a strong signal that Becton places parents on a rank with the lowest PFC. The slight is even more pronounced considering that he torpedoed a proposal to shuffle students to other locations while repairs are done. Disgruntled parents have distrusted Becton since he ignored their pleas and voted four months ago, as a member of the appointed school board of trustees, to close all 18 schools on his list of endangered schools. (The trustees eventually spared five.)
Becton last week padded his rep as PTA nemesis when he shunned the concerns of parents and removed only eight of the troubled system’s 146 principals. Some parents at Ross Elementary near Dupont Circle were particularly upset because they thought they had gotten rid of their principal, Miguel Ley, before Becton reappointed him.
The school system’s CEO also reappointed Winston Elementary principal Ronald Parker, who gained national notoriety last spring when unsupervised youngsters disrobed and engaged in sex acts. The retired general tried to conceal his action by omitting Parker’s name from the list. In the wake of heated criticism, especially from Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, chair of the council’s Education Committee, Becton has retreated, saying he is re-evaluating his decision.
Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, also a member of the Education Committee, is still searching for the parents Becton claims he consulted before delaying the opening of schools.
“This is the worst D.C. government debacle since the snowstorm,” says Patterson.
She is not the only one evoking the nightmarish January 1996 blizzard that paralyzed the city for nearly a week. Harold Johnson, deputy to retired Army Gen. Charles Williams, who is in charge of the $50-million roof replacement fiasco, last week defended the plan to replace more than 40 roofs. “This is a herculean effort,” Johnson told Washington City Paper.
That’s the exact phrase Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. used 20 months agostumbling badly on national TV over the pronunciation of “herculean”in praising his administration’s snow-removal effort when the city’s snowplows were as hard to find as downtown parking spaces.
Johnson should consult Roget’s for another word that doesn’t conjure up those bitter memories. And he could benefit from some deal-making advice from Donald Trump. When Johnson met with roofing contractors in late July, he spoke as if he were negotiating from a position of power. “He said if you can’t do what we want in the time frame we want, don’t even bid on this, because your name will be dragged through the papers and you’ll never work in this town again,” relates one potential bidder who attended the briefing. “Everyone wanted to help, but it was just chaos.”
This contractor, like many others at the meeting, took Johnson’s advice and headed for the door, leaving Becton to moan that he didn’t get the competition he expected.
When he took control of the school system last November, Becton promised to get the schools open on time, make them safe, and put friendly, competent principals in charge. He also came up with a short-lived, ill-advised plan to ease this fall’s transition for students whose schools have been closed by hiring clowns to greet and entertain them on their first day at their new schools.
So far, most would give Becton a failing grade on the goals he set for himself. Becton says he deserves, at worst, an incomplete, and shouldn’t even be graded until he’s been on the job for two years.
His missteps may provide comfort to those still smarting over last year’s demotion of the city’s elected school leaders. For them, the inability of the nine-member appointed board to handle the job any better vindicates the disgraced elected school board.
But the 11-member elected school board hasn’t rushed forward to help the city deal with the crisis. Instead, the elected board is trying to avoid its responsibility to decide the fate of the Marcus Garvey Charter School following the conviction of its principal, Mary Anigbo, earlier this month on misdemeanor charges stemming from a confrontation with a Washington Times reporter.
Whether appointed or elected, D.C.’s leaders should be issued dunce caps for how they spent their summer vacation.
After former D.C. Council chair Arrington Dixon won a heated contest before the Democratic State Committee Aug. 14 to fill newly elected council chair Linda Cropp’s at-large seat, D.C.’s 1997 political retread pledged to donate half of his $80,000 annual council salary to the Democratic Party. To LL, that sounded like a payoff to the 36 state committee members who voted for Dixon on the fifth ballot and enabled him to head off stiff challenges from lesbian activist Sabrina Sojourner and Ward 5 Dem Paula Nickens.
The state committee, the ruling arm of the city’s dominant political party, showed its appreciation by passing a resolution stating that Dixon’s selection amounted to a primary victory. Any Democrat who dared oppose Dixon in the December election, it decreed, would be branded a traitor. Dixon will occupy Cropp’s seat until the Dec. 2 election to fill the vacancy. He faces a crowded field of piddly challengers from across the political spectrum.
Sojourner, D.C.’s elected statehood lobbyist to the U.S. House, is so far the only Democrat with any clout who has dared to defy the state committee’s edict.
The state committee’s latest effort to deny D.C. voters an array of quality choices at the ballot box provides yet another argument for switching to nonpartisan elections in the District. When the home rule charter was written 24 years ago, U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs, the Detroit Democrat who chaired the House D.C. Committee, backed nonpartisan elections for the nation’s capital. Diggs concluded that the city would get a better reception on Capitol Hill if its leaders were not elected on the basis of party labels.
But the plan was nixed in the Senate by Tom Eagleton, a staunch Democrat from Missouri.
•The much-anticipated shake-up at the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) is still in the works, although resistance from Mayor Barry has delayed the expected coronation of former General Services Administrator Terrence Golden as WCCA director. Barry is trying to preserve a role for Louanner Peters, who currently heads WCCA.
LL can understand Barry’s resistance to relinquishing control over the board he has packed with his political appointees. Congress recently stripped him of control over major city agencies, and the appointment of members to boards and commissions is one of the few powers he has left.
But opposition to Peters is too strong for Barry to head off her ouster. The city’s hotel and restaurant industry, in particular, blames Peters for the delays in starting construction on a new convention center at Mount Vernon Square, which sits one block northeast of the current Washington Convention Center.
Opposition from community activists in Shaw and the skepticism of federal planning boards forced WCCA to push the deadline for construction bids from June to early September. The team of Clarke/Smoot construction companies, which is currently completing the MCI Center and renovating the John A. Wilson Building, is expected to be the leading contender.
In fact, convention center sources say Clarke/Smoot will be the only firm vying for the contractan uncompetitive scenario typical of Barry-appointed commissions. It will take years for WCCA’s new crew to erase Hizzoner’s fingerprints from the convention center’s blueprints. CP
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