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Inside the political theatrics of the D.C. Public Schools’ latest crisis is the poignant story of good intentions gone wrong. While arms flail and fingers point, Parents United has watched as its lawsuit designed to fund schools has drawn a target on a historical ally. Instead of fixing schools, the powers that be are fixing to fire school Superintendent Franklin Smith.
“This is not what we wanted to happen. We did not bring this lawsuit to watch school officials and the fire marshal run around frantically putting Band Aids on a $500-million problem,” Parents United’s Mary Levy said on Aug. 9, at the public hearing on fire-code violations called by the control board.
Levy is a lawyer for and member of the citywide Parents United, which brought the lawsuit over dilapidated schools against the District government back in 1990.
The control board’s meeting on the schools last month at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library had all the tension of a small-town courtroom, where the defendants were well known to the community, and no one could believe the terrible crime they had committed. With each witness, there was a hush as testimony began, then angry mumbling as confusion and disgust settled into the crowd like a bad cold. People wanted to know the truth: Who jeopardized the opening of several city schools by not having fire-code violations corrected? Who placed such a low premium on the education of thousands of District schoolchildren?
Was the culprit Superintendent Franklin Smith, the D.C. Board of Education, Mayor Marion Barry, Congress, the fire department, insufficient funds, or mismanagement? Control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer promised to get to the bottom of things.
As Parents United’s Levy made her statement, it was clear she wanted no part of the headhunting for the superintendent, a man her organization has constantly praised. Now Smith was being held responsible for something she and Parents United members saw as a problem caused by a lackadaisical mayor, an uninterested D.C. Council, and a stingy Congress.
The organization’s full name—Parents United for Full Funding for D.C. Public Schools—reveals a more complicated agenda than parents suing over leaky roofs.
In the beginning, Parents United watched in frustration and growing anger as Marion Barry and the council repeatedly underfunded the school system. Over a decade ago, city officials emphasized pressing school needs to gain public approval for a lottery, and then never dropped a dime from one scratch ticket into the system’s coffers.
After seeing the schools screwed every time financial priorities were set, Parents United—the brainchild of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights—sought out articulate, involved parents to help make its case. From the beginning, the concern from parents centered on fixing school buildings, because if that didn’t happen nothing else would. After all, how could the organization get money for up-to-date equipment, textbooks, higher salaries, or smaller classes if the roofs were leaking, the bathrooms were funky, and the windows were broken?
“So we said. ‘Let’s get parents, students, and teachers decent buildings,’” recalls Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United. “But when we looked into whether we had a [legal] right to decent buildings, we were told all we have a right to is having a building inspected by the fire department.”
So Parents United made a tactical play and accused the fire department of failing to inspect schools. In a 1990 survey, it found schools with falling plaster, leaky roofs, missing fire doors, and no heat—all fire-code violations. In total, Parents United found more than 4,000 code infractions in D.C. public schools in April 1990.
But while Parents United chastised the school system for not having a schedule to conduct repairs, it focused most of its attention on funding. The month prior to the Parents United report about decrepit District schools, the council slashed the school system’s request for a $100-million increase in its fiscal 1991 budget to $43 million. That action took away $10 million slated for building repairs. Parents United had seen enough. They wanted the schools funded in a way that kept them from falling apart, and they were willing to sue.
Before Parents United stepped inside D.C. Superior Court to put its case to Judge Kaye K. Christian, the group desperately sought to link its destiny with the school system’s. Andrew Jenkins, superintendent at the time, was not the friend Smith has become, but the parents group still did not want to injure the very bureaucracy it was trying desperately to improve. Parents United begged the school system to join it in the lawsuit and file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.
“We told them, ‘If you don’t, the mayor and council will drag you into this and make it seem as if you’re at fault,’” says Rice-Thurston.
The school board declined at the time, but last week six board members asked to become plaintiffs in the case so they could join Parents United in the push for full funding of school maintenance and repairs.
Sharon Pratt Kelly was mayor at the time the group stood poised to file its lawsuit. She responded to Parents United’s threat by pledging to set aside $50 million a year to deal with the $150-million backlog in school repairs. But Kelly never delivered on her commitment, coming up with only $30 million to cover a two-year period. When the school system did its own analysis of how much restoring its ancient facilities would cost, it discovered that the funding from the mayor only scratched the surface. The system actually needed $583 million. Since then, another parents group, the 21st Century Fund, has reported that to fully renovate buildings, including wiring them for the latest electronic technology, would cost $1.2 billion.
“This council and this mayor have given the school system el ziperino toward a capital budget to fix those buildings,” says a frustrated Rice-Thurston.
In a broader sense, the roof fell in when the roofs on various schools started falling in. Roofs cost an average of $1 million to replace; the school system has 91 buildings that need new roofs. Rice-Thurston says she understands the city can’t come up with $91 million, but she feels there are rampant misplaced priorities, citing the city’s projected $60 million investment in the downtown arena and the multimillion-dollar convention center. Next to the pressing needs of the city’s school system, “I consider these to be superfluous,” she says.
Meanwhile, Rice-Thurston, Levy, and others at Parents United aren’t sure what protection they can give the school system of their friend the superintendent, who Wednesday faced a tribunal at Martin Luther King Memorial Library, where several residents called for his head.
“We feel terrible. All these good things have happened under the superintendent, and we have to sit by while he is being pilloried for not opening six schools,” says Rice-Thurston.
—Jonetta Rose Barras