City Paper is not for tourists
At-large school board member Valencia Mohammed is not about to take a vow of poverty just to sit on the D.C. school board and preside over more layoffs and school closings. The fiery first-term board member takes a very dim view of plans by the D.C. Council, the mayor, and the financial control board to cut her salary by more than half, from $31,000 to $15,000, starting Oct. 1.
Mohammed—who champions Afrocentric curricula and opposes school Superintendent Franklin Smith’s privatization proposals—was perfectly content to serve on the board the past four years, when it ranked as the highest-paid school board in the land. But with her salary on the chopping block, Mohammed is considering a run for the at-large council seat Bill Lightfoot now seems certain to give up this year. The council job, after all, pays $80,605 annually—a salary apparently more to Mohammed’s liking.
Even though the council has not yet approved the salary cuts, Mohammed has already taken them to heart. Last week, the answering machine at her school board office featured a testy recorded message aimed at those who would trim her budget: “The successful lobbying efforts of the superintendent of schools and the D.C. city council to diminish the role of the school board, to cap the yearly salaries [of school board members] to $15,000, and continuing efforts to eliminate all staff for the board members have left the members of the Board of Education in a very uncomfortable position. Therefore my office cannot possibly [handle] the large volume…of calls that we receive on a timely basis. I’m referring all calls to the superintendent’s administration on 724-4222, where the problems originated in the first place. Or you can contact Joyce Ladner with the control board at 504-3400 to explain why you feel that there is a need for the members of the Board of Education.”
Mohammed’s offensive defense of the board’s budget hasn’t charmed everyone: “Don’t write anything to discourage her from running for the council,” a school board official pleaded with LL this week. “I want her to run and get her out of here.”
But forces stronger than LL’s opinion may deter Mohammed from tossing her hat in the ring. One such force is popular Republican Carol Schwartz, who is considering a comeback bid for the council seat she held for four years. Schwartz vacated the seat in 1988, clearing the way for Lightfoot.
That seat is reserved for a non-Democrat under a provision of the 22-year-old home rule charter forbidding the dominant political party from holding more than 10 of the 12 council seats. Statehood Party leader Sam Jordan is another likely prospect, and he’s already campaigning for the seat in hopes of securing Lightfoot’s endorsement.
Mohammed risks losing her soapbox if she runs. Since her school board term expires this year, Mohammed would have to forgo running for a second term to seek the council seat. But she appears ready to make the move even though a second term on the school board would afford her time to fight for her pet project: ousting Smith when his contract runs out in 1997.
“I presume she’s running for something, since she’s got her own photographer taking her picture at events,” says school board President Karen Shook, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large council seat in 1994. “I have talked to her twice about this, and she hasn’t said one way or another.”
Consistent with her recorded message, Mohammed didn’t return several phone calls from LL over the past two weeks to discuss her future plans and recent board activities.
Last January, she fiercely lobbied her colleagues to secure a spot as one of the board’s four delegates to the annual meeting of the National School Boards Association in Orlando, Fla., in early April. But once Mohammed got to Florida she spent more time at Disney World and other attractions than she did at the convention, according to fellow delegates Shook and school board Vice President Sandra Butler-Truesdale. (Ward 2 school board member Ann Wilcox was the fourth delegate.)
“I went to her afterwards and said, ‘Where were you?’ because we needed our delegates for two full days,” says Shook. “She told me she was there the first day, and then she overslept the second day and didn’t get up until 9, so she didn’t show up at all.”
But according to Butler-Truesdale, Mohammed spent no more than two hours at the conference the first day, if that. The school board spent nearly $5,000 of taxpayers’ money to send its delegates to the conference, according to the Washington Post.
Mohammed chose not to fly down with her colleagues. Instead, she rented a car with her stipend and drove down with family members. But other delegates said that Mohammed also had anti-Smith comrade George Pope in tow. Pope, you may recall, currently faces misdemeanor charges for allegedly making telephone threats against at-large school board member Jay Silberman during last year’s heated board battles over privatization, charter schools, and educational reforms.
U.S. vs. Pope has not yet gone to trial in D.C. Superior Court because Pope has won several continuances, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. He is now hiring a new lawyer, which has caused additional delays.
Mohammed put Pope on the school board’s payroll as her assistant last year after her two staff members, one of whom is her stepdaughter, quit and accused her of paying a “ghost employee” who never performed any work. The staffers said the employee, Ellis Lipscomb, also turned over part of his paycheck to Mohammed. They took their accusations to the U.S. Attorney’s office, which launched an investigation. No charges have been filed in the case.
At the time, Mohammed said she had fired the staffers, and dismissed the accusations as sour grapes from “disgruntled” former employees. She said Lipscomb had worked for her as an outside consultant.
Mohammed then hired Pope to fill one of the vacant staff positions. But she was forced to dismiss him earlier this year following complaints from “a board member,” according to Butler-Truesdale. But school board members and staffers say Pope continues operating out of Mohammed’s office and using school board supplies and equipment.
The controversial Mohammed was back in the news last week, fighting to keep open seven aging school buildings that the school system—and D.C. taxpayers—can no longer afford to operate.
During a raucous May 14 public meeting over the school closings that lasted until nearly 2:30 a.m., Mohammed got into a heated exchange with Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, who was among some 125 people speaking out against the closings. During his comments, Thomas verbally chastised board members for arriving late to the meeting, which didn’t sit well with Mohammed, since she was among the latecomers.
When Shook attempted to get the discussion back on school closings and suggested that Thomas and Mohammed continue their conversation outside, Mohammed snapped, “I am not your daughter.” Her eruption made the 11 o’clock news.
In most places, Mohammed’s antics would prevent her from pursuing higher office. But in the District, skillful politicians often thrive by packaging self-interest as a fight on the citizens’ behalf.
APPRAISERS AND ASSESSORS
When former property tax appeals board chairman Ron Hudson appeared at his May 9 D.C. Council confirmation hearing to head the D.C. Board of Appraisers, he submitted an outdated résumé listing himself as chairman of the “Board of Equalization and Review.” Hudson last chaired the property-tax appeals board in 1993 and its name has since changed to the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals.
Nowhere was there a hint of the current business ties between Hudson and developer R. Donahue Peebles, who also handles commercial appeals before the board he himself once chaired, from 1987 to 1988. He recently hired Hudson to handle his commercial appeals, and Hudson confirmed to LL that he has already appeared before the board in closed session on behalf of Peebles’ clients.
At-Large Democratic Councilmember John Ray conducted Hudson’s confirmation hearing but made no mention of the outdated résumé. Ray has been one of Peebles’ staunchest allies on the council, and Peebles raised money for Ray’s unsuccessful 1994 mayoral bid.
Hudson said he simply never bothered to update his résumé but claims he informed the committee that he was employed as Peebles’ “director of assessment appeals services.” He said, “I made no attempt to hide that.”
Had Hudson’s ties to Peebles been public at the time of the confirmation hearing, his nomination might have encountered opposition from appeals-board watchers. Doug Ormerod, who in 1993 resigned from the board in protest of Hudson’s chairmanship, this week urged councilmembers to reject his nomination to the appraisal board. Ormerod said Hudson lacks the “managerial qualifications and ethics” to serve in a nonpaying position overseeing appraisers.
“He has a real conflict here,” said one appeals expert, who did not want to be identified. “He can’t possibly be regulating the appraisers at the same time he’s over there at the appeals board advocating manipulating appraisals/assessments to benefit clients.”
Hudson disavowed any conflict of interest. “Obviously people don’t understand the functions of the appraisers board. One really doesn’t have anything to do with the other. The appraisers board has nothing to do at all with setting values of property in this city,” he said. Hudson added that he will not appear before the tax appeals board as an appraiser, even though he is licensed to appraise residential property in the District.
Meanwhile, Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams and Department of Finance and Revenue acting director Paul Wright are looking into whether they can legally reassess 9,100 properties assessed for the 1997 tax year by city assessor Michael Selden. Selden’s assessments, which were based on the size of the house instead of its market value, are largely responsible for the record 5,000 homeowner appeals that have flooded the board this spring.
Some Ward 3 homeowners saw the assessed values of their properties more than double at a time when real estate agents complain that District houses aren’t selling because of the city’s financial woes.
Selden went on a two-week vacation at the beginning of this month, just as the appeals of his assessments were being filed. “I’d like to know who approved that vacation,” said one irate homeowner.
Is it a fire department or an ambulance service? With the well-documented breakdown of the city’s ambulance service over the past several years, the D.C. Fire Department has stepped in, and fire trucks are now usually the first on the scene in medical emergencies. That added duty, say firefighters, is the reason so much of their equipment is breaking down or wearing out much sooner than expected.
For instance, the District is planning to shut down Engine No. 1 at 2225 M St. NW, Engine No. 7 at 1101 Half St. SW, and Engine No. 9 at 1617 U St. NW. From Oct. 1, 1994, to Sept. 30, 1995, those three engines together responded to 4,118 fire alarms but were sent out on 7,342 medical emergencies, according to the department’s figures. The same is true for the city’s other fire stations, members of the local firefighters union claim. When a firetruck responds to a medical call, firefighters have to remain on the scene until the ambulance arrives, which can take anywhere form 20 minutes to an hour, according to department sources.
While LL is on the subject of the fire department we thought we’d check in on the shower situation at Cleveland Park’s Fire Station No. 28. The showers have been broken there for nearly four months, and the Cleveland Park Citizens Association (CPCA) set off a firestorm in March when it offered to pay for new shower heads and installation (see Loose Lips, 4/12). CPCA so far has raised $900 from area residents to fix the showers. But D.C. Fire Chief Otis Latin, reportedly embarrassed by the offer of charity, decided the department would handle the situation on its own. The department sent its own crew over in April to make the repairs and avoid purchasing new shower heads. But the crew couldn’t get the job done.
Finally, after two meetings between CPCA members and fire department officials in the office of Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, Latin relented and agreed to let the association pay for the job. The necessary equipment reportedly is on order.
CPCA came to the rescue again last week after the May 15 robbery of the neighborhood post office. Postal officials threatened to discontinue service in Cleveland Park until renovations on the post office, located next door to the fire station, are completed, which should be in about six weeks. But that action was averted after the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) agreed—in writing, as postal officials requested—to step up security in the area. CPCA President Stephen Koczak served as the intermediary between postal and MPD officials. “I don’t know what it is between the federal government and the District government that these guys don’t even want to talk to each other,” says Koczak. On Monday, the post office dispatched a mobile postal van to the neighborhood. Given the auto-theft epidemic raging in every corner of the city, LL hopes they equipped the van with an anti-theft device.CP
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