- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

What a public forum on D.C. education reform yesterday lacked in participants — obviously the cold and unplowed city streets kept people home — it made up for in passion.

So much so that long after the 90-minute forum — “School Board Control: How would mayoral takeover of the District of Columbia’s school system affect the quality of education of our children?” sponsored by The Washington Times — was adjourned, the impassioned participants stood around in small clusters and continued to debate the complex issue.

This debate was one of the first public forums in which representatives of both sides of the mayoral takeover plan were afforded a fair and open opportunity to air their concerns and make their case. Would that the D.C. Council follow suit.

This small crowd, weighted with concerned community activists, appeared to be opposed to D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s plan to wrest control of the system and neuter the elected school board.

And if there had been a popularity contest or a vote of confidence taken between Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso and D.C. Board of Education President Robert C. Bobb, the former D.C. city administrator would have won, hands down. To their credit, participants raised questions and issues that need answers.

One big one: If the mayor and the D.C. Council bypass the voters and send this bill to Congress for passage, what’s to keep any one of 434 members from meddling in it?

Others: How much is the mayor’s plan going to cost? What are his and the deputy mayor’s credentials for running an urban school system? If the city is getting failing marks for its procurement system, as the Government Accountability Office reported this week, is this administration capable of handling another agency?

“How are you going to put dysfunction over dysfunction?” asked Iris Toyer, a representative of Parents United. “This is not at all about children; this is about property and power.” Later she listed several items in the mayor’s proposals, such as control over maintenance, that she suggested “were put in there to get certain council members’ votes.” What Ms. Toyer dislikes most, however, is to be characterized as someone who wants to maintain the status quo. “I resent it, and I take it personally when anyone says I’m for the status quo.”

Robert Brannum, a retired military officer and substitute teacher, agreed. “Those of us who oppose this are not supporting the status quo. … I am just as committed to children learning and achieving,” he said.

But, he added, “You can’t teach in disorder.” He prefers that Mr. Bobb be given a chance to whip the sleepy school system into shape. So do I.

“This is the way backward, and I’m going to drive forward with Robert Bobb at the helm,” said Mr. Brannum. He added that the number of voters who elected Mr. Fenty to be mayor is about equal to the number who elected Mr. Bobb to run the school system.

Mr. Bobb said, “I’m not here to defend what happened in the past; I’m here to move forward.” Again, he emphasized the new board’s specific goals for academic achievement. He touted the steps it has taken to implement changes such as beefing up their oversight function, which previous boards had overlooked.

In that regard, Mr. Bobb sent a copy of a memo in which he sought a quick and direct answer for why the school system has not spent money that the D.C. Council approved for schools.

It seems that the school system has not actually received the funding. The council approved the master facilities plan, which was presented in January, but it has yet to vote on it. Secondarily, Mr. Brannum pointed out, the District’s budget is still being held up in Congress.

Mr. Reinoso said that even though he recently was a member of the Board of Education that he now criticizes, he thinks the mayor’s proposal presents a better structure and path toward improving academic achievement though greater accountability.

When asked why the mayor’s proposal was short on academics, Mr. Reinoso said the plan, developed after 1,000 hours of community input, was in the mayor’s bill. The mayor’s plan also includes the school superintendent and the school board’s master facility plan.

“So you’re just going to take credit for somebody else’s work?” Mr. Brannum asked. And, he wondered, how could the city adopt the master plan but get rid of the people who put it together?

What is clear after listening to countless hours of public comment is that a lot of people are acting out of emotion rather than facts — mainly because they don’t have them.

Callers to a weekend radio show, for example, said they supported the mayor’s thrust to fix the schools, but Mr. Brannum noted that few of them know what is written in the 48-page document that the mayor presented.

All the heat generated on a freezing day indicates that most people who care about D.C. students are really on the same page: Everyone agrees it’s imperative to improve student achievement. But adults are all over the map on how to make that goal a reality.

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