The effort to forge a home-grown D.C. school reform plan before Congress imposes its own is starting to resemble the delicate Middle East peace negotiations. Not since the 1992 Democratic National Convention have so many people who dislike and distrust each other gathered in one room—in this case the stuffy basement of First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church at 602 N St. NW—and managed to remain civil. D.C. Public School (DCPS) activists, parents, school board members, and politicians have been meeting daily since July 6, making bedfellows of folks who usually can’t stand each other.

School board President Wilma Harvey sat across the table from her nemesis, reform foe George Pope, who in 1991 orchestrated recall attempts against Harvey and three other board members. (D.C. election officials threw out his recall petitions because of massive “petition irregularities,” including signature forgeries.)

Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. suggested more school closings to a roomful of parents who steadfastly fought previous plans to close schools in their neighborhoods.

And embattled DCPS Superintendent Franklin Smith talked with people who believe the first step to school reform is his removal. The D.C. Coalition to Save Our Schools (DCSOS) circulated a flier during the first meeting demanding Smith’s immediate firing for, among other reasons, supporting privatization of schools, enrolling his son in a Virginia school, sending special-ed students to schools outside the District, and hiring a “white male” to head DCPS’s personnel department and “a white woman to be the spokesperson for the D.C. school system who cannot speak standard english [sic].”

(The last, racist reason referred to former DCPS spokeswoman Karen Hinton. She has a Southern accent, but left her post last winter. Beverly Lofton, an African-American, replaced her.)

Perhaps because of Smith’s presence, and certainly because of the moderating skills of the Rev. Robert Childs of Berean Baptist Church, the issue of the superintendent’s tenure was never discussed. Childs, one of the three ministers who convened the “education summit,” ably kept the disparate group of 45 or so focused on the areas where it might reach consensus.

School activists are hailing the ongoing meetings at the Shaw church because—unlike most D.C. community summits—they have not degenerated into name-calling and finger-pointing.

“I think that’s the uniqueness of this group,” Childs said this week. “People are sitting down at the table who normally won’t sit down with each other.”

But civility is not enough, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), told summit participants during a seven-hour meeting in his office on Monday. Gunderson, whom House Speaker Newt Gingrich picked to lead a congressional task force on D.C. school reform, warned the group that the Hill is looking for real reform, and soon.

Otherwise, the congressman cautioned, his task force will make its own recommendations, possibly by the end of the month. Its proposals might include a commission to run D.C. public schools until the city gets its act together (if it ever does). The current school board, whose continued existence is the subject of much debate among D.C. officials and residents, could be reduced to a mere rubber stamp for the congressional commission.

LL can understand why Gunderson was not impressed with the summiteers’ progress. After four days of grueling meetings that sometimes lasted into the wee hours of the morning, the summit participants presented Gunderson with a list of what they oppose. They are against privatization of public schools, against creation of independently operated “charter schools,” and against vouchers to send DCPS students to private schools.

Privatization, vouchers and charter schools are the core of the GOP task force’s goal of giving D.C. parents more choice in public education.

And what did the summiteers agree to support? They called for the creation of a “state office of education” to oversee schools and handle all federal and local public-education funds. This has been the District’s standard response to change—oppose real reform and create another layer of government to deal with the problem.

But this Congress is not about to OK a plan that expands government and gives Barry more patronage jobs to fill. Gunderson and Gingrich have promised to find private funds to make long-lasting repairs to the District’s dilapidated public schools. But they want to reassure investors that their money won’t be squandered without any real improvements in public education. The creation of a Barry-controlled state education office is hardly likely to soothe potential contributors.

Not everyone has gotten the message that Congress has changed. Pope, who could barely collect 20 valid signatures when he tried to recall Harvey in 1991, has returned claiming to represent 20 “grass-roots organizations” that oppose the core of reform plans favored by Congress and Superintendent Smith. No one ever asked him to identify the groups he claims to represent. From what LL can tell, these groups probably consist of the same small band of followers operating under a variety of different monikers: DCSOS, Citizens United (which seems to be centered within the University of the District of Columbia), and the Coalition to Defend African American Education, headed by Howard University professor Mary Hoover.

Instead of pushing for more rigorous educational standards, Pope, his ally Thelmiah Lee Jr., and Hoover are pushing DCPS to adopt an African-centered curriculum, a proposal that reformers see as a continuation of DCPS’s “dumbing down.” These foes of Smith—which include the school unions—also believe the city should find more DCPS jobs for District residents and guarantee that no current teachers or employees lose their jobs because of reform, even if they aren’t performing. Instead of firing bad teachers, these groups want to retrain them.

Despite the calm, accommodating manner and leadership skill of Childs, Pope, and Lee managed to wear down the summit participants. The pair succeeded in diluting the reform plan proposed by Smith. That plan—the centerpiece of which was to give each school more autonomy and the power to decided whether it wanted to be run by a private group—also has the support of an apparent majority of the school board, although the board has not yet voted on Smith’s ideas. On Monday, Gunderson appeared to favor Smith’s plan over the watered-down summit scheme.

The Smith plan has also won the backing of the leadership of Parents United, the D.C. Committee on Public Education, and the Greater Washington Research Center’s Carrie Thornhill.

Pope’s tactics took their toll on the summit even before it convened July 6. Former Superintendent Vincent Reed, a driving force in the Thursday Group, an ad hoc coalition on school reform that had been meeting at Childs’ church for the past few months, boycotted the summit because of Pope’s participation.

Although the anti-Smith, anti-reform groups undermined the reformers, Pope, Lee, and company unwittingly are serving as stalking horses for those in Congress who want to step in and take control of the city’s schools. Gunderson had offered the city an opportunity to control its own destiny by drafting its own reform plan.

But, as usual, local groups can’t even agree that major reforms are necessary.

FEDERATION FUSS, PART 2

Perhaps the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations needs to enlist Childs to moderate its bitter dispute. When the federation convened June 29 to attempt to resolve its internal strife and elect new officers, the rancor that aborted its original election meeting on June 8 had not dissipated (see “Loose Lips,” 6/23). The second meeting ended with deposed federation President Stephen Koczak in the hospital; his rivals declaring that he was faking illness; a letter of protest dispatched to D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke; and members calling for an investigation of the conduct of a city security guard present at the meeting.

Here is what happened, as best as LL can determine from the conflicting accounts of those present. The June 8 meeting had ended abruptly when federation member Gail Barnes was prevented from reading her report questioning the credentials of a half-dozen federation members. But after Koczak, Barnes, and their allies left, federation Secretary Guy Gwynne said he reconvened the adjourned meeting. “Any president canbe overruled on anything by his body,” Gwynne said later. “That’s in Robert’s Rules of Order.”

In the president’s absence, Gwynne said the federation members remaining voted to have “a neutral party” chair the June 29 meeting where the new president would be elected. Although only Gwynne’s candidate, Georgetown resident Peggy Snyder, had been nominated for the top job, Gwynne swears that Koczak intended to try to hang onto the presidency for a fourth term. Koczak just as adamantly swears he did not intend to run again.

Michigan Park Citizens Association member Kenneth Howley had been picked out of the crowd remaining at the June 8 meeting to chair the June 29 meeting. When Koczak arrived for that meeting two weeks ago, he found Howley, whom he said he did not know and had never seen at a federation meeting before, sitting in his chair. Howley refused to relinquish the gavel. So Koczak remained standing and tried to gain control of the assembly.

He called on Barnes, saying she had the floor when the previous meeting was adjourned. Barnes again tried to read her report questioning the credentials of some of Gwynne’s allies. At that point, Gwynne and his supporters stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “I didn’t see which flag they were pledging to,” Barnes quipped later.

Gwynne tells a different story. The gathering rose to say the Pledge of Allegiance, he asserts, and Barnes tried to “filibuster. It was the same ol’ stuff that she’s been putting out. We all told Koczak to step aside, so he insisted on calling the meeting to order on his own.”

At that point, Sgt. Curtis Calhoun, an employee of the city’s Office of Protective Services, escorted Koczak outside. According to Koczak, Calhoun told him that he and only he would not be allowed in the meeting. Gwynne arranged Calhoun’s presence at the meeting. “We thought there might be trouble. And there was,” Gwynne said later.

Koczak’s allies tried to reverse his banishment by showing Calhoun the federation’s letterhead listing Koczak as president. Amid the confusion, Koczak got back inside. Then he fainted. “He’s faking it! He’s faking it!” Gwynne shouted into the microphone.

“That was very dramatic,” Gwynne skeptically commented later. “He was out [of the hospital] before noon the next day.”

Barnes was incensed that Calhoun remained at the back of the room and ignored her pleas to call an ambulance. “He just stood there with his hands crossed,” she said. Barnes subsequently complained to Calhoun’s boss.

After appearing to regain consciousness—and being told again by Calhoun that he would have to leave—Koczak was driven by Barnes to Sibley Memorial Hospital, where he spent the night. But before leaving, Koczak announced the meeting was adjourned. After the departure of Barnes, Koczak, and a few others, the meeting continued. Snyder was elected president. For his loyal services, Howley was elected first vice president.

Stay tuned. LL feels certain this saga is not yet over.

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