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When members of the D.C. financial control board met with the school board on Sept. 12, they were steeled to grapple with serious proposals to solve the city’s education crisis. The meeting, after all, came right in the midst of the highly publicized flare-up over fire-code violations in school buildings and various other manifestations of poor management by school administration.
But school board members quickly took control of the meeting’s agenda and focused on more pressing issues. Like their objections to a congressional measure slashing their salaries from more than $31,000 per member, the highest in the land, to $15,000. And their appeals to restore their $1.4-million yearly budget so that each school board member can continue employing two full-time staffers. And their demands for free parking privileges when on official business and meeting with the control board.
Perks like these are only fitting for members of the city’s first and oldest elected body, they argued.
The meeting sealed the fate of the school board. Control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer and his colleagues left the session stunned by the outpouring of petty grievances. The conclusion was inescapable: The school board would sooner fight for fresh spring water at its 12th Street digs than push the reform agenda that current conditions require.
(Control board Executive Director John Hill didn’t share the shock felt by control board members. That’s because he had been tuning in to school board meetings on cable Channel 28 and already realized the board spent its time discussing just about everything but education. Perhaps the best way for the school board and the D.C. Council to shore up sagging public respect for their work would be to pull the plug on their cable broadcasts.)
Also, the control board realized that leaving the school board intact would handicap its plans for a coup at the superintendent’s office. The control board had been planning to bounce Superintendent Franklin Smith and replace him with Gen. Julius Becton Jr. However, Hill said Becton would have refused to serve if he had been required to report to the badly divided school board.
So the control board was forced to set up an alternative school board, cumbersomely named the “Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees,” to serve as role model and therapist for the duly elected school board. In addition to bringing accountability to the school system, the new board must also teach the elected school board members how to do their jobs in hopes that they will be able to take the school system back and run it properly in three to four years.
To guarantee that elected school board members get some on-the-job training, the control board allotted a seat on the nine-member panel of trustees for the school board president. The Rev. Robert Childs, elected to an at-large school board seat Nov. 5, is an early favorite to move into the school board president’s chair now occupied by at-large school board member Karen Shook, who is leaving the board when her current term expires in January. Childs has pledged to cooperate with the control board rather than fight its actions, as Shook is doing.
Control board members became convinced that the school board didn’t have a clue as to what was going wrong in the schools after reviewing a food service contract awarded by Smith in July. The control board yanked the $21-million contract after determining that it was too costly.
At-large school board member Jay Silberman steadfastly defended the contract, claiming it would cost much less than the nearly $30 million the school system had been spending annually to feed students. And Silberman rejected as unreliable an estimate by school food services director Betti Wiggins that the school-lunch program should cost only $17 million annually.
But a review by the control board confirmed Higgins’ estimate. The control board’s report on the school system released last week found that $12 million in salaries and other expenses unrelated to feeding children had been hidden in the food-service budget.
And Shook put in her two cents for incompetence when she admitted during a Sept. 4 hearing that the board didn’t review most contracts because school board members didn’t want to “micromanage” Smith.
If Brimmer and Co. need any more evidence that the school board is the most dysfunctional member of the city’s political family, they need only monitor the recent follies of Shook and Silberman, who filed suit in federal court last week to block the control board’s rescue plan for D.C. schools.
A dysfunctional family, when its dirty little secret becomes known, characteristically circles the wagons to protect itself. And that’s exactly how Shook and Silberman are behaving, which has some observers, including control board staffers, wondering what they are trying to hide.
Although Shook and Silberman lost the first round when a U.S. District Court judge denied their request for a temporary restraining order to prevent Becton’s hiring and the creation of the board of trustees, the disgruntled board members are pressing ahead with their lawsuit—even though they have uneven backing from their own colleagues on the board.
“I have mixed feelings about this,” retiring school board member Valencia Mohammed said of the control board’s actions. “But this is something that should have happened long ago, and the current structure wouldn’t allow it.”
Brimmer pulled off the school coup so deftly that even Chilean usurper Gen. Augusto Pinochet would have been envious.
The coup was prefaced by a devastating report that blew away arguments by Smith and school board members that the crisis stemmed mostly from budget cuts, not management blunders. Smith and the board could no longer mouth that excuse after the report pointed out that the superintendent spent $6 million annually on his own office, at least two times what superintendents in other major cities spend. And the D.C. school board’s annual budget of nearly $1.5 million dwarfs outlays for school boards in comparable cities.
Even old political hands like Joe Yeldell cooed in support of Becton, former president of Prairie View A&M University, who will serve as both CEO and superintendent of the school system. “Julius Becton is a great educator,” Yeldell declared.
The control board also chose to announce its coup at Luther Place Memorial Church on Vermont Avenue NW, perhaps calculating that the opposition would be better behaved in the house of the Lord. The crowd read faithfully from the control board gospel and applauded when Brimmer announced the plan.
By the time the hammer fell, the coup-savvy control board had blocked all possible avenues of protest. And it didn’t even have to dispatch a paramilitary squad to UDC to rough up the radical element.
Opponents had little choice but to watch from the sidelines and hope that Becton and the new board of trustees fall on their faces, vindicating their fig-leaf protestations about the erosion of home rule. The reaction of last week’s crowd demonstrated that D.C. residents have had enough of democracy that doesn’t work. Now they want a government that delivers and schools that educate, and only the control board is promising that at the moment.
The control board’s coup effectively boxed in yesterday’s reformers as today’s defenders of the stagnant status quo. Silberman and Shook, leaders of the school board’s reform caucus, must be shaking their heads in bewilderment over how they got snookered into defending a failed superintendent and a failing school system.
The new reformers and revolutionary thinkers now are the five members of the control board, led by the grumpy, grandfatherly Brimmer. Yesterday’s reformers have nothing new to offer and can only oppose what the control board proposes.
Even the city’s top two elected leaders, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., were forced to argue lamely for the infusion of more politics into the reforms. Barry, junketing in the Far East, faxed a last-minute plea to the control board to withhold its actions until it held a series of public meetings to consider the views of political and community leaders. And Norton floated a plan that would have kept the powers of the elected school board intact.
WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin, chief spokesman for the old thinkers, criticized Becton for refusing to move from the Virginia suburbs into the city while he runs the District’s schools. Plotkin also cornered former Brookings Institution head and appointed school trustee Chairman Bruce MacLaury, a longtime D.C. resident: “If you’re so concerned about education in the District, why have you never run for school board?” Plotkin asked.
MacLaury calmly answered that he and other members of the new board were selected to bring accountability and management to the troubled system, and not to bow to political winds.
The control board has shown no tolerance for allowing politics and process to obstruct decisive action. In a city that has become paralyzed by politics and reverence for process, the board’s approach is revolutionary.
FEDERAL CONTROL OF COPS
The PR war over whether to bring the Metropolitan Police Department back under federal control resumed last week with a Capitol Hill forum featuring a demonstration of cops in action. One audience member, complaining that the D.C. police only “set up black people like me,” was quickly subdued and handcuffed after assaulting meeting moderator Sandy McCall in a tug of war over the microphone. The man certainly picked the wrong place, a school auditorium full of cops, to portray himself as a victim of crooked cops.
In the forum’s more civil moments, D.C. Fraternal Order of Police head Ron Robertson argued that the feds would bring a hat trick of wonders to D.C. public safety: They would add badly needed resources that the city cannot now afford, loosen Barry’s iron grip on the department’s top ranks, and put more cops on the street. Such a move would have the greatest impact in poorer neighborhoods, where drug gangs rule street corners, he said.
“How many people have to die at the alter of home rule before we get the message?” asked Robertson, who claims a majority of D.C. police officers support federalization. His comments were greeted with both applause and shouts of, “You’re a fascist!” from the divided audience of about 150.
According to Robertson, Barry asked the financial control board Nov. 8 to seek federal control and full federal funding of the department for the next five years. Control board Executive Director Hill said later that Barry has made no such request and that the board is not considering such a move.
LL has to wonder about Robertson’s state of mind if he believes Barry would ask, or even allow, the feds take over a one of the most important functions in his shrinking empire.
Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, who will soon move over to an at-large council seat and run for mayor, was playing cute on the issue, as usual. Brazil coyly said the solution was not federal control but a change in the mayor’s office. “Maybe you need a new chief executive who doesn’t overreach,” he said—and then smiled as the audience got the message that he’s the change many of them are seeking.
Brazil is also pushing the appointment of a public-safety commissioner to oversee the department and pry Barry’s fingers off it.
At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, chair of the council’s Judiciary Committee, was playing Hamlet once again, trying to decide where to come down on this issue as he leaves the council to prepare to run for mayor in 1998:
“To be or not to be for federalization?
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler to put more resources on the street
Or whether ’tis only a return to federal slavery?
O, where shall I be on this issue?”
Many D.C. voters would like to know whether Lightfoot really will run for mayor as an independent in 1998, or simply wrestle with the decision over the next two years.
Carl Rowan Jr., the most ardent and sincere spokesman for federal control of the D.C. police, said the city faces a public-safety crisis requiring immediate action—a feat that only the federal government can afford.
“What is missing here is any sense of outrage and any sense of urgency,” Rowan said, referring to the response by the city’s elected leaders to the crime problem. “We have the worst upper management I have ever seen anywhere in any department.”
Even those in the audience skeptical of federal control of D.C. police nodded in agreement on that point. CP