John A. Wilson Building, home to the local government
John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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On Tuesday afternoon, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced his committee assignments for Council Period 24, which begins in January 2021. The Council will vote on the chairman’s proposal during their organizational meeting early next year.

One of the most notable changes is Mendelson’s elimination of the standalone Committee on Education. For the past two years, Mendelson shared oversight of education in D.C. with departing At-Large Councilmember David Grosso. Now Mendelson’s Committee of the Whole, which includes all 13 members, will have jurisdiction over education matters.

Grosso, who opted not to run for re-election this year, says he supports the decision.

“I think it makes sense now for him to keep it in the Committee of the Whole, as long as he can keep up staff and give them proper autonomy and authority to support incredible changes we’ve seen to advance equity in our schools,” Grosso says.

Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray also supports Mendelson’s decision. It’s something he did as Council chairman. “It’s not unique,” he tells City Paper. “But I think what it does, too, is gives the opportunity for the entire Council to be able to focus fully on education. And for some of the new members, this will be a unique experience for them … they’ll be able to do even more I think than they would have otherwise.”

Education advocates, including the Washington Teachers’ Union, do not support the decision to dissolve the education committee.

Aside from the education shakeup, Mendelson proposed several other notable changes:

• Councilmembers Gray and Charles Allen (Ward 6) will co-chair a special committee that will oversee the District’s COVID-19 response. Gray says the special committee is expected to produce a report, although no deadline was specified. He’s hoping to meet with Allen soon to go over specific goals for the committee. Gray would like to evaluate the pandemic’s impact on education—specifically, virtual learning’s toll on public schools—and businesses.

“Like anything of this significance and importance, you want to move as quickly as you possibly can to get the maximum benefit,” Gray says of the report.

• At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman will chair a three-member subcommittee charged with making recommendations on drawing new ward and ANC boundaries based on the census.

• At-Large Councilmember Robert White‘s Committee on Facilities and Procurement is now the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities. White gained oversight of many agencies within outgoing Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd‘s Committee on Government Operations except for the Executive Office of the Mayor. Instead, oversight of Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s office goes to At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds‘ new Committee on Housing and Executive Administration.

“I don’t think [the] mayor wanted Robert White overseeing her operations,” Grosso says. “That would seem to be a conflict. He might give her a really hard time because he might run for mayor, whereas Anita won’t do much at all.”

• Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1) and Trayon White (Ward 8) were removed from the Committee on Housing and Revitalization, which will become the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration. Nadeau and White each represent wards with multiple public housing complexes and low-income residents, and Nadeau chairs the Committee on Human Services, which frequently hears concerns that overlap with housing issues. Without White, the housing committee does not have a ward-level member who represents residents east of the Anacostia River, where more than 60 percent of executed evictions take place. “The rate of executed evictions is 13 times higher in Ward 8 than Ward 2,” according to a recent Georgetown report.

In July, Nadeau and White co-introduced a bill that would expand D.C.’s rent control law to include about 13,000 more units immediately, cap annual rent increases at the rate of inflation, and close loopholes some landlords use to get around D.C.’s current rent control law. Nadeau says she told the chairman she wanted to remain on the housing committee and was surprised to learn she’d been removed. She also asked for Mendelson for joint oversight of the D.C. Housing Authority due to the overlap between services for people experiencing homelessness and people living in public housing. She says the chairman is still considering her proposal. Mendelson did not immediately return a phone call.

A number of tenant advocates were outraged that Nadeau and White were removed from the housing committee. Some viewed their removal as a consequence of them introducing ambitious legislation pushed by advocates with the Reclaim Rent Control campaign. “To me, this is in clear retaliation to Nadeau’s push for real rent control [and] low-income housing,” tweeted Jesse Rabinowitz, an organizer at Miriam’s Kitchen. Allison Hrabar, an organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords, tweeted “Nadeau and White were not initially supportive of the rent control bill. They responded to pressure from tenants. Mendo is punishing anyone who listens to their constituents.”

Education advocates are disappointed in Mendelson’s decision to dissolve the stand-alone education committee. The move comes at a time when advocates have been calling for more oversight around the mayor’s plans for reopening schools. The Council is the only elected body that has the authority to provide rigorous oversight, given that the State Board of Education wields minimal power. The education committee also oversees the budget of big-ticketed agencies like D.C. Public Schools. Education accounts for 30 percent of FY 2021 Local Fund budget.   

While it shared jurisdiction with Mendelson’s Committee of the Whole, the Committee on Education had dedicated staff. It’s unclear whether the Committee of the Whole will expand its own staff, who are already responsible for several critical agencies including the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Planning, and the University of the District of Columbia. 

“We appreciate that the Council demonstrated the importance of education in the District by bringing it under the purview of the Chairman of the Council during the current Council period,” says the Washington Teachers’ Union in a statement. “However, the Chairman of the Council has many important competing priorities and our education system and students need a committee chairperson who has as their top priority the administration of the Committee on Education and oversight of the associated agencies.” 

Advocates suspected Mendelson would fold education into the Committee of the Whole as was done in years past. The Council was without a stand-alone education committee between 2006 and 2012. Mendelson revived the committee, saying then “this will be very good in intensifying our work on public education.” More than a dozen groups, including Ward 8 Education Council, EmpowerEd, and Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, asked Mendelson to not abolish the Committee on Education. 

“We fear re-learning a lesson we have witnessed in the past- that when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge,” says the letter dated Dec. 18. “While the whole council would bear responsibility for education, we fear that it will be far too easy to put education issues on the backburner for individual members when they do not have a direct charge on the issue. In previous experience this has meant few council members attended education hearings and there were long delays in council response to urgent education issues that surfaced from the community.”