- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2007

A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday ruled against a grandmother hoping to bring Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s school takeover before voters — a decision that likely ends any challenge to the mayor’s proposal and allows him to assume official control of the public school system next week.

“We have to resign to the fact that the judge just told us [the mayor] will do that,” said Mary Spencer, the public school grandparent who requested that sections of Mr. Fenty’s plan be subjected to a voter referendum. “But that doesn’t mean we’re loving it.”

Judge Lynn Leibovitz agreed with city attorneys and reversed an opinion by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics that stated part of Mr. Fenty’s plan is not a proper subject for a referendum because President Bush has already signed it into law.

“What is acted upon by Congress cannot be approved or rejected by” a referendum, Judge Leibovitz said during a hearing announcing her ruling. “The wish of the electorate to tell the world its opinion … is not properly the purpose of the referendum process.”

The judge also said the elections board had the right to reverse its original decision that the takeover was the proper subject for a referendum. She also refused to order the board to issue signature petitions to referendum supporters.

She did not rule on whether the board had violated D.C. law by not reversing its opinion at a public meeting but said elections officials made their stance clear in public court documents.

“The change of decision in this case was made in a reasonable time,” Judge Leibovitz said. “I find that the delay here was not unreasonable even in light of the need for haste in the referendum process.”

The judge agreed with city officials that a section of Mr. Fenty’s takeover legislation presented to the D.C. Council that would amend the city’s Home Rule statutes upon congressional approval was “legislatively accomplished” when Mr. Bush signed a similar bill in Congress authorizing the charter changes.

Mrs. Spencer’s attorney, Matthew Watson, had argued that the congressional bill and council bill were separate from each other.

He also said a referendum approved by voters would essentially retain the D.C. Board of Education as the authority over the school system and have no effect on the congressional legislation.

But Judge Leibovitz said the referendum would not just “undo the takeover” and instead would give Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, budgetary control of the system without placing anyone in actual authority over the schools.

“This would be utter chaos,” she said.

After the hearing, Mr. Watson said he would not file a challenge to the judge’s ruling with the D.C. Court of Appeals because of timing issues.

Referendum supporters would have had until Monday to gather roughly 20,000 signatures in support of placing the takeover on voter ballots, and further court proceedings would only cut into their time frame.

“The notion that you could collect 20,000 valid signatures on Saturday and Sunday is pretty difficult,” Mr. Watson said.

The judge’s ruling means Mr. Fenty is expected to officially assume control of the 55,000-student school system Tuesday when a congressional review period for his council legislation expires.

The mayor already has taken steps to transition authority from the board to his office.

On Monday, he announced that two consulting firms will during the next several months review the school system’s finances and operations to identify waste and inefficiencies.

There also is speculation that Mr. Fenty will next week decide on the future of schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.

Mr. Fenty has cited poor student performance, crumbling facilities and a lack of accountability as some of the reasons for a takeover.

The mayor commended the decision made by Judge Leibovitz and said he is getting ready to assume control of the school system.

“My administration is actively preparing for Tuesday when I will gain authority over D.C. Public Schools and can start providing an excellent education to every student in the District,” he said.

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