Ties That Bind: Councilmembers hop aboard Fenty excursion to New York. Will they do likewise for his schools agenda? Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty should be the envy of every huckster who peddles vacation-destination condos. He knows how to put together an irresistible package.

Take a look at the can’t-lose proposition that he offered to D.C. councilmembers last Friday: Free trip to New York City! Lunch with a billionaire mayor! A tour of Gracie Mansion! Right in the midst of the Christmas shopping season!

And the extra-special-bonus add-on? Well, attendees would get front-row seats to watch Fenty’s lobbying for stronger mayoral control of the D.C. Public Schools—no obligation to buy, of course.

No wonder, then, that 10 of the 13 people who will make up the next D.C. Council jumped at the Fenty offer. On their jaunt, they learned just how New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg revamped schools management. Faced with a failing system, he scrapped the elected school board, created a city department of education, and brought in a take-no-prisoners chancellor of schools.

In D.C., Fenty has his sights set on scrapping the elected-appointed school board, creating a city department of education, and perhaps bringing in a take-no-prisoners superintendent. (The mayor-elect has expressed misgivings about the pace of reforms enacted by current Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.)

After arriving in frigid Manhattan, the D.C. delegation boarded the Bloomberg-funded bus bound for one of the city’s reinvigorated schools. In true Bloomberg fashion, the boarding process was overseen by no fewer than eight heavily armed law enforcement and military personnel.

The only thing the host didn’t pay for was the ride up on Amtrak, which cost the taxpayer-financed transition office $7,743.68.

Practically every councilmember claimed to be on the trip to learn more about various systems of school governance. No one referred to the trip as what it was: a Fenty lobbying excursion. The council, which holds the power to decide how the schools will be governed, was merely along for an educational experience.

Please.

If there was any doubt that the trip was something other than a fact-finding mission, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein cleared it up for the media right after his closed-door presentation to the council. When asked what he hoped D.C. elected officials would take from the trip, Klein talked about Fenty’s “bold leadership” in putting forward an aggressive schools-reform plan. “I hope [the council] will support the mayor’s plan and say it will not be business as usual,” said Klein.

CHANNEL FENTY

The Fenty lobbying excursion wouldn’t have been complete without a government-propaganda arm: D.C. public-access cable Channel 16.

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The mission of the channel, according to its own Web site, is to “provide information regarding the many programs, services and opportunities made available by the District of Columbia Government.”

In this case, the channel apparently was using city tax dollars to let the public in on Fenty’s schools-takeover lobbying plan. Vincent Morris, spokesperson for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, put it another way in an e-mail: “This was a trifecta, with DCPS, Mayor and Council all participating.”

Sure, the cable channel was a PR machine for both Mayor Williams and his predecessor, Marion S. Barry Jr. But the channel, which is funded by franchise fees collected from the cable companies, is governed by city regulations when it comes to content.

Here’s how the regulations posted on the channel’s Web site put it:

“City Cable Channels 13 and 16 will provide information to residents of the District of Columbia concerning the functions, activities, programs, and issues of the City. The channels shall not be used as a political forum by any individual group, nor are they to be used as a mechanism for building exclusive support for a particular person, program, or issue.”

According to the regs, the publicly funded channel “covers” city programs and events at the direction of the mayor. In practice, the channel itself makes the judgment on how the public will be served.

The decision to follow Fenty and company to New York signals that the government station will be putty in the hands of our new, telegenic mayor.

So who makes the call? According to the Channel 16 personnel on the New York trip, they were directed to go to New York by Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications Director James Brown. “We get press releases from Fenty,” said Audio-Video Specialist Cecily Fernandez.

For his part, Brown chooses to stick with the legalese. He refused to return calls from LL, but in an e-mail, he parrots the company line on the trip: “The Mayor-Elect, present and newly elected District of Columbia Council members and District of Columbia education officials traveled together to New York for the purpose of…examining ‘best practice’ models related to public school operations. Channel 16’s coverage of this trip enabled it to collect (and ultimately disseminate to District residents) important information regarding public education in the District of Columbia.”

The Fenty staff claims it gave no direction to the channel. “When I first started [on the job] they were already on our press list,” says spokesperson Mafara Hobson. Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, who led the legislative branch, didn’t request city-funded coverage.

Former Williams spin master Peggy Armstrong says the cable office can easily make the case that the trip provides a public service. And besides, she says, the channel has never really been about providing balanced information: “It’s about the mayor’s agenda.”

BARRY SNUBS LOCKRIDGE

The Dec. 11 luncheon honoring the city champion Ballou Senior High School football team featured plenty of star power.

Mayor-elect Fenty made an appearance. So did former Washington Redskin head hog George Starke. And of course, Ward 8 Councilmember Barry served as host of the affair held at the Grand Hyatt.

But one notable Ward 8 dignitary didn’t make it to the banquet room: school-board member William Lockridge—the guy who represents the Ballou community and made the case for the school to get a shot at the championship.

It turns out that Barry, who organized the lunch, didn’t include Lockridge on the invite list. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, considering that Barry backed Jacque Patterson in his challenge to unseat Lockridge during the November elections. At that time, the councilmember unleashed a barrage of harsh attacks on Lockridge in an automated phone message.

Ballou was almost taken out of the championship tournament when unnamed sources challenged the academic eligibility of two Ballou players. The D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association originally knocked Ballou out of the championship game and ruled that Anacostia Senior High School would face off against perennial power Dunbar Senior High School in the Turkey Bowl.

But just a day before the big contest, schools Superintendent Janey overruled the jocks and ordered that Ballou would indeed get the title shot.

According to parents and coaches, Lockridge was the guy who pressed Ballou’s case with the schools administration. But that wasn’t enough to secure a lunch date with Barry and the team.

“I was in [Ward 8 Business Council President] James Bunn’s barbershop,” says Lockridge. “I came to move some campaign stuff out of my old office above his place. One of the coaches at Ballou saw me and said, ‘You’re not going to the lunch, Mr. Lockridge?’ That was the first I’d heard of it.”

Lockridge says the snub was no oversight. He and Barry spoke on Saturday at the councilmember’s ward-leadership breakfast. “Marion even said, ‘Well, me and William, we have our differences, but we move on.’ I guess that philosophy only goes so far for him,” says Lockridge.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

• Back in 1999, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans led the fight to put the John A. Wilson Building back into the city’s hands. The feds were poised to occupy two-thirds of the District’s city hall as part of a deal to repair what was then a crumbling structure.

So on the heels of Fenty’s plan to replace the sixth-floor executive offices with a more open “bullpen” on the third floor, Evans is chiming in on how to deal with the excess space that will be the former sixth-floor executive suite.

“We should put a gym up there,” Evans told LL and several of his colleagues on the train during the Fenty roadshow. “I’m serious,” he said. Evans might have been overcome by the testosterone flowing through the Accela train. Shortly after he mentioned his renovation idea, the councilmembers hatched the idea of forming a council basketball squad and challenging certain members of the media to a game.

• As reported in the Washington Post, one of the few problems on the New York trip involved the temporary loss of Barry’s black overcoat during the school tour. When Barry got on the bus after the tour wearing the coat of his Chief of Staff Keith Perry, he worked his way down the aisle, inquiring along the way if anyone had mistakenly grabbed his coat. When he reached the very back of the bus, where Fenty had instructed the press to sit, Barry paused at LL’s seat. “I think Loose Lips took it,” he joked. Then he spied a black overcoat next to Post reporter David Nakamura, who immediately held it up and laid claim to it. “Yeah, you’re right. I can see it’s too cheap,” said Barry. “I don’t wear them cheap coats.”