Sign up for our free newsletter
Bruce MacLaury, head of the District’s newly appointed and all-powerful school board, and Don Reeves, president of the emasculated, elected school board, are acting like two people trapped in a bad marriage: They’d like to be rid of each other, but they’re both sticking it out because of the kids.
The D.C. financial control board last November picked former Brookings Institution head MacLaury to lead the nine-member Emergency Transitional Board of Trustees, the official name for the newly created school board assigned to steer city schools out of crisis over the next three years. And the control board reserved a seat on the appointed board for the president of the city’s 28-year-old elected but disempowered school board. That move was designed to provide on-the-job training so that the elected school board would be able to take over again once the city’s educational crisis has ended.
Reeves, who advocated sacrificing home rule to save the schools during his successful campaign for the Ward 3 school board seat last fall, became the city’s only elected representative on the appointed school board when the fractured, 11-member elected school board chose him as its new president in early January. MacLaury and Reeves have been going at it like two litigants in divorce court ever since.
The tussle began when Reeves’ volunteer staffer, Murch Elementary parent Marlene Berlin, wrote a letter to control board member Joyce Ladner complaining that the appointed board members were even more clueless than their elected counterparts. Berlin also pleaded for greater control board oversight of Julius Becton, the retired general selected last year by the control board to replace fired superintendent Franklin Smith.
Berlin’s request was laced with irony because the control board stripped the elected school board of its powers in November for blindly following Smith and failing to acknowledge his misdeeds. Now, Reeves and Berlin are leveling the same charges at the appointed board vis-à-vis Becton. Reeves says Becton only responds to crises, such as bursting water pipes and fire-code violations, and insists that conditions inside classrooms citywide have worsened since the new board took overa claim that defies belief.
Ladner responded to Berlin’s concerns by turning her letter over to the appointed school board. And Maximum Appointed Leader MacLaury responded by banning Berlin from all future sessions with the appointed board.
Banishing Berlin from the junta’s proceedings put MacLaury in an awkward position, since he had allowed his wife to attend the meetings to serve as his personal assistant. To keep things fair, MacLaury booted her from the deliberations as well.
Citing MacLaury’s insistence on closed-door proceedings, Reeves last month threatened to resign from the appointed board. The appointed board held only two public meetings during its first four months in power and conducted two additional meetings on school closings this month. Three more are planned for early April before MacLaury and company reveal their decision the evening of April 15. Nothing like a tax deadline to minimize public attention.
MacLaury says that board members need to meet in private so they can learn the ins and outs of D.C. public schools before they go public with their recommendations. He promises a much more accessible board in the future.
But Reeves, who never made good on his threat to quit the appointed board, claims that MacLaury “trashed” all the information he collected from parents, teachers, and community groups involved with neighborhood schools.
“They’re not trashed, but these particular documents are missing,” MacLaury admits. He recalls that the documents critiqued the conditions of Ward 3 school facilities but notes that his staff has completed its own assessment.
“He wants a united front, and the attitude is, screw the public. The public is only in the way,” says Reeves, the only member of the board to dissent publicly on any issue.
Reeves says MacLaury at one point advocated the “the big bang” approach to school downsizing, which would have closed 40 facilities next year, instead of the 16 in the current plan. MacLaury’s staff, Reeves said, dissuaded him from going forward with his drastic proposal. Reeves also insists that the public need not bother protesting the 16 proposed closings, because MacLaury and his fellow board members have already made up their minds. The public hearings, Reeves says, are a mere formality.
“He is doing a disservice to the children of this city by making such statements,” MacLaury said of Reeves last week.
Reeves, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, and others charge that the board chose the schools on the closings list on the basis of their real estate value, not on their success in educating children.
“If a school gets taken off that list by some divine act of God, [the appointed board members] are going to replace it with another one,” Reeves predicts.
It may take a divine act to keep the tensions between MacLaury and Reeves from turning into a schoolyard brawl while they both pursue very different education-reform agendas.
District activists gearing up for their March 20 meeting with U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, the shoot-from-the-lip North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate D.C. appropriations panel, billed the occasion as a showdown with one of the up-and-coming opponents of home rule. But the event turned into a contest to shower niceties on the city’s villain of the month and get him to sit down for a home-cooked meal, D.C. style.
Faircloth agreed to last week’s meeting after 25 angry residents stormed Faircloth’s office March 5 to protest his inflammatory statements in the Washington Post two days before. Faircloth had advocated scrapping self-government in the nation’s capital, downgrading the role of the mayor and the D.C. Council to ceremonial status, and hiring a city manager to run the government.
“If that bothers you, then you need to move,” he was quoted by the Post as advising those who seek full congressional representation.
Faircloth requested a small, informal meeting in which he could exchange views on District affairs with the audience. But Faircloth’s staff reserved a cavernous meeting room that could have hosted a State of the Union address. And Faircloth sat on the dais at the front of the room, keeping what looked like half a football field between himself and his 40-odd antagonists.
But he needn’t have worried. The senator was face to face with the typical group of blowhard activists who foam at the mouth when Republican congressmen dis the city but turn into cowards when it comes to scolding local officials for incompetency.
Once the activists get an audience with their GOP enemies they turn into fawning subjects grateful for the attention, any attention. D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton captured the syndrome best when she told Faircloth at the start of last week’s session, “I am so grateful that you are meeting with people who are not your constituents.”
Tim Cooper, who organized the March 5 protest, was also gratefulso grateful he invited Faircloth to dinner at his home. “I think it would be exciting to sit across the table from a man of your caliber,” Cooper exuded before the senator.
Not so fast, breakaway Catholic priest and Ward 6 council candidate George Stallings Jr. said a few moments later. Since he is a native of Faircloth’s North Carolina, Stallings suggested that the senator should come to his house for dinner.
“I asked first,” Cooper chirped.
No one need bother inviting LL to dinner. We have been gagging over this spectacle ever since, and we’re not sure when we will regain our appetite.
Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Gigi Ransom told Faircloth that District residents should be allowed to vote on whether they want to change to a city manager form of government. “We are not a territory. We pay taxes, but territories have more rights,” she said.
After six residents spun their tales of political injustice, Cooper attempted to choke off the comments and let Faircloth answer charges that he was being insensitive to the democratic rights of D.C. residents. Protests from audience members determined to get their two cents in kept the monologue-fest going.
“If we’re going to talk about democracy, we have to grow up and practice a little democracy ourselves,” ACT UP activist and Ward 6 council candidate Steve Michael interjected.
The next speaker, D.C. Statehood Party chairman Sam Jordan, droned on so long that his allies found it necessary to abridge his First Amendment rights. “Finish, Sam!” audience members implored.
Jordan pleaded for full political representation for D.C. residentsan empty appeal from the leader of a party that has allowed frail and failing Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason to deprive city residents of full representation on the D.C. Council.
After another dozen or so speakers paraded to the witness table, Faircloth realized he could no longer dodge their concerns. Choosing his words cautiously, Faircloth stuck to his previously stated position that D.C. belongs as much to the residents of the rest of the country as it does to the residents of this city.
He said the city’s leaders need to rectify management problems and come up with $36 million to repair schools before decisions are made about the future of the District. He appeared to embrace the idea of “a reciprocal income tax” as long as it doesn’t look like a commuter tax, and he offered to hold more sessions with D.C. residents in the future.
“Not having the vote is certainly a bad thing,” he said. “But not having the opportunity to vent your frustrations about it is maybe a worse thing.”
By their display of gratitude, some of last week’s speakers appeared to agree.
Free-lance journalist Jack Calhoun says he is being made the “scapegoat” for the Metropolitan Police Department’s failure to halt daytime robberies of Capitol Hill residents going to and from work via the Potomac Avenue Metro station.
Calhoun was robbed at gunpoint on the morning of March 14 as he was rushing to get to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims downtown to cover a story. On the Metro, Calhoun encountered another robbery victim, who didn’t call police because he had no money on him at the time he was accosted. Since he didn’t want to miss the court hearing, Calhoun waited until his lunch break to notify the police.
When he got home that evening, Calhoun said 1st District police officials had already notified neighborhood beat captains and reporters of his negligence, claiming the robber could have been nabbed if Calhoun had called right away. The issue also came up at the March 20 Beat 27 meeting, where Calhoun tried to defend himself.
“I’d say the room was probably split 50-50 over whether I should shoulder the full blame for the police’s failure to apprehend the criminal,” he said this week, in disbelief.CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.