- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

D.C. lawmakers wrapped up their legislative session this week in a united front with Mayor Tony Williams in a lawsuit that threatens their relationship with constituents, and the District’s relations with its neighbors, Congress and the White House. It was not a smart move for any of them, and I seriously question my elected officials’ judgment on such a wrongheaded move. It makes me wonder: Where are the District’s priorities?

That is not an altogether outrageous question because there are no obvious answers. The legislature has made so many power plays until, frankly, I can’t recall any significant legislation that it has approved that truly improved the quality of life for denizens of the District.

Meanwhile, several aspects of the government — especially the school system — seem to be on autopilot. And, here’s why I said that. While it’s not unusual for cabinet members and other senior advisers to resign during any chief executive’s second term, the brain drain from the Williams cabinet and the inattentiveness of other senior aides left the mayor exposed as carrion for the hyenas of City Hall. Since the mayor is a Democrat just like 11 of the 13 lawmakers (and even the two Republican lawmakers, who are situated to the far left), the frantic struggles weren’t over ideology at all, but consolidating power.

Now this: Many of the mayor’s senior advisers have either already departed or announced their pending departure. Still others are shopping their resumes. While some of those advisers will be missed and others needed to be pushed out of City Hall, the mayor should use the legislature’s summer recess wisely to get his house in order.

In his second Inaugural Address in January, Mr. Wiliams cited three “priorities that must guide us over the next four years: education, opportunity and public safety.” He was right then, and he would be wise to follow his own advice now.

The mayor did start out on the right foot, reversing himself earlier this year and endorsing a federally funded voucher program for poor D.C. residents. While the school board president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and the chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, Kevin Chavous, also support vouchers, implementation of such a policy — as well as those three elected officials — faces considerable but not insurmountable opposition.

The mayor and Mr. Chavous have to concede the upper hand, since D.C. Public Schools is an independent agency. The most powerful school official is an elected officeholder, Mrs. Cafritz, who tries to carry water for both the status quo — what I call the Mo’ Money Crew — as well as those advocating school reform and choice. Just Wednesday, Mrs. Cafritz said she reluctantly sided with a majority of her board colleagues in the 6-3 vote to slash $52 million in raises from the school budget as a cost-cutting measure. But, “The mayor has lied to the people of the District of Columbia about funding our schools,” The Washington Post quoted her as saying during the board meeting.

It is so easy to blame the mayor and the council, who do in fact decide the bottom line in the school budget, while the school board spends the money.

So, if Mayor Williams wants his educational reform priorities to stay on track, there are a few things he must do. Of utmost importance for him to remember is that the school governance law, which allowed Mrs. Cafritz to run for school board president in the first place, will sunset next year. The changes, which became law following a nasty referendum campaign, redrew school districts and replaced the all-elected school board with a smaller hybrid version of elected and appointed members, among other things. Its intent was to push along school reform and end the tradition of ambitious nobodies using the school board as a springboard to higher office. But, while the springboard has certainly lost its bounce, what stands in the stead of reform is mere change.

Surely, Council member Chavous — whose seat is up for re-election in 2004 — is aware of the timing involved here. I’m not so certain about the mayor, who needs a new city administrator and chief of staff, just to name two, to focus and, to borrow a word from the mayor, “guide” the administration’s efforts regarding education reform. (He has an excellent administrator in Deputy Mayor Eric Price.)

The mayor should choose carefully, since lawmakers have already promised another feeding frenzy after they return in September to City Hall. After all, Mr. Chavous, five of his fellow lawmakers and two school board members face election in 2004. I can’t wait.

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