- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

With the District’s mayor having put himself in the position to be called “Lame Duck” Tony Williams until January 2007, I wasn’t sure education would ever again be on his radar. I’m glad it is, though I’m uncertain about the mayor’s, shall we say, follow-up, since he promised in 2004 that charter schools would be viewed favorably regarding the lease and sale of surplus schools. Is he trying to kiss and make up?

He has, somewhat, made up for that promise by making the disposition of surplus schools No. 8 on his list of legislative priorities. The issue now is whether lawmakers will do the same thing this week, when lawmakers begin marking up a bill that would raise taxes to establish a school-modernization fund.

What the mayor has done, and deserves applause for, is forcing the hands of the very politicians who want to be mayor or want to remain lawmakers. I hope this time around that the mayor spends whatever political capital he has left to ensure that the issue of funding school projects is an issue in next year’s elections.

What the mayor has proposed is the sale or lease of the old Bruce, Crummell, Keene, Old Congress Heights and Langston/Slater schools. “I would like to work with [the] Council to approve these dispositions by year-end in order to put these facilities into productive use,” the mayor said.

I’ve been pushing the mayor, the council and the school board in that direction for a decade. I know letting go of school property is emotionally difficult. Alumni shed crocodile tears and poker players hold handfuls of race cards.

The burning issue of what to do with unused and underused school buildings always puts politicians behind a rock and a very hard place, too — smack between the folks who want to save our schools and those who want to save a building. Schools are worth saving for academic purposes; buildings come and go as the market dictates.

One 1941 alum recently lamented that it would be difficult to see her old schoolhouse sold on the marketplace for, say, condominiums. I hold a softspot for her. But my heart goes out to the children of the nation’s capital, who, in winter and summer, don’t know whether their unionized engineers are qualified to operate the HVAC systems, and to students in charter schools, who aren’t getting a fair shake on those unused and underused school buildings.

Selling off old school buildings to the highest bidders makes good fiscal sense.

Besides, we have no choice. According to figures from the D.C. Chief Financial Officer, taxpayers — including those like me, who no longer have children in public schools — will have to fork over close to $2.5 billion to modernize the 145-plus school inventory.

The council and the mayor are debating how we’re going we to pay for such a massive project — a project that, by the way, is massive because school authorities refuse to close underutilized buildings and are ornery about leasing space to or sharing space with charter schools.

But they have put the cart before the horse. The recent debates have centered on where the money is going to come from, when the question should be who shall control how the money is spent.

Remember: D.C. Public Schools is home to the same stubborn bureaucracy that academically stifles our children.

D.C. Public Schools does not have the internal expertise or organizational structure to efficiently manage a $2.5 billion building project. As things stand now, it barely manages to spend effectively the funds it gets for routine repairs and maintenance (and I’m being overtly generous with that comment).

It seems to me that the “partners” who collaborated and brought Clifford Janey in as superintendent must now pull together a public-private partnership whose sole purpose is to rebuild schools — traditional and charter. The partnership should not have spending authority, powers bound by law to the home-rule charter and in hands of the District’s wholly independent chief financial officer.

After those managerial and oversight mechanisms are in place, then City Hall and the other “partners” can begin collaborating on where the money will come from — and raising taxes should not be an option. They should also remember that members of the school board have always claimed that the school buildings were neglected because of the lack of funds. We know that’s not true because the unions have a history of picking our pockets.

There’s an easy model for serious “partners” to follow if they really and truly want to rebuild schools: chief academic officer, chief operations officer and chief financial officer, and the buck stops with the chief executive officer — the superintendent.



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