Council Prepares to Give Fenty Control of Schools
Complete Takeover for Mayor Could Be Months in Making
In the three months since he proposed a dramatic restructuring of the District’s public school system, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has outmaneuvered the Board of Education, using his political capital to shore up support and turning the contest over his plan into a rout.
On Tuesday, the D. C. Council will consider the first step toward transferring direct control of the 55,000- student system to Fenty ( D). Although council members will offer amendments, the primary tenets appear set for approv- al: The mayor will gain authority over the school superintendent, the council will assume line- item control over the budget and the school board will become a mostly advisory panel.
It could be months before Fenty takes full control, because the council is required to take a second vote and then Congress must vote on changing the city’s Home Rule Charter. But the question for city leaders and residents has become: Can Fenty move beyond politics and turn his proposals into concrete improvements in the schools?
The takeover is likely to represent the biggest test and toughest challenge for the Fenty administration, which will inherit an education system plagued by an alarming dropout rate, under- performing students and crumbling, outdated buildings.
The mayor “ was clear from Day One what he wanted to do, and he’s done a good job presenting his case,” said council member Jack Evans ( D-Ward 2), one of Fenty’s top allies. “ But implementation is very hard. This system does not move easily. . . . He’s basically running for office again in two years, and he has to start showing improvements. He’s got
the control. Now what do you do?”
For starters, Fenty has put into place a 12- member team under the city’s new Department of Education: Deputy Mayor Victor A. Reinoso, a chief of staff, an executive assistant, five special assistants, three policy analysts and a director of parent outreach.
Reinoso, a former school board member, said his priority has been to work with council members to maintain support for the takeover legislation and minimize the number of amendments. But his staff has been laying the groundwork for the takeover, preparing a plan for a school ombudsman’s office, working with other city agencies to ensure that they will support the schools, and communicating the finer points of the legislation to the community and teachers’ union.
What’s not clear is when the Fenty team will be allowed to move in to make budget and personnel decisions, including the biggest one it faces: whether to keep Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.
officials want enough time to be sure school opens smoothly in the fall, and council members have been discussing ways to maintain an orderly transfer of power. One method would be for the council to approve an emergency measure to award Fenty control immediately, until Congress acts.
In lieu of that, one administration official said, Fenty’s team is hoping school board President Robert C. Bobb would be willing to recognize the change in power after the council votes and move aside under a “ gentlemen’s agreement.”
“ They could say no and not let us in,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the council has not voted. “ It could be that September comes around and we’re still sitting there waiting.”
In an interview last week, Bobb did not address the timeline, saying he is focused on his job.
“ I’m here. I’m not going away,” he said. “ There’s work to be done. There is a need for leadership, and I intend to lead.”
In late January, the school board attempted to lead, offering its own plan to improve the schools and pledging to make significant student performance gains in 18 months. But that proposal won little support among council members or residents, who largely saw it as a reaction to Fenty.
By then, Fenty already had been wooing council members. In December, he took them to New York to visit Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ( R), who took over that city’s schools in 2002. Fenty also included demands from council members in his legislation, such as giving them line- item budget control.
When he announced his takeover plan Jan. 4, a day after taking his public oath of office, Fenty had nine of the council’s 11 members standing with him. Phil Mendelson ( D- At Large) and Carol Schwartz ( R- At Large) have consistently been opposed.
Since then, the school system has suffered setbacks. Problems with heating systems in several school buildings in February highlighted Janey’s slow pace on school modernization. The same month, auditors hired by the city’s chief financial officer ripped the system’s financial accounting. And last month, council members blasted Bobb and Janey for sending over $ 1 billion in school construction contracts for approval with little documentation about how the money would be spent.
“ Ironically, the school board and system were Adrian’s best allies, continuing to prove themselves inept at everything they do,” Evans said.
Bobb bristled at that notion, suggesting criticism of the school system was overblown because of the political fight over governance.
“ Any small thing that happens or that’s out of the ordinary in the school system becomes magnified,” he said.
Community activists opposed to Fenty’s takeover tried to rally support for the school system, but their efforts have not ignited broad opposition.
“ We sat through 67 hours of [ public] hearings, and the people who objected had no plan,” said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray ( D), who was initially uncommitted but now supports Fenty’s takeover. “ What is the alternative?” Staff writer Theola Labbé contributed to this report.