- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2008

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee dropped in on a handful of community meetings on their proposal to close 23 city schools — an approach that left residents guessing where the city’s top education officials would be to hear their concerns.

“What are you supposed to do — roll a dice and figure out which school they’re going to be at?” said Cherita Whiting, a community activist who attended a meeting held in protest of the mayor’s simultaneous sessions last night.

School officials said late yesterday afternoon that Mr. Fenty, Mrs. Rhee and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso would “play it by ear” on which meetings they attended. School system staff hosted meetings the top officials did not attend.

Schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said officials held the 23 separate meetings “to accommodate 23 different school communities.” She could not provide in advance a list of schools at which Mr. Fenty, Mrs. Rhee and Mr. Reinoso would attend meetings, instead saying their decisions would be made at the time based on their location and proximity to the next school.

Fenty spokeswoman Carrie Brooks also said the group would fan out based on attendance at the meetings.

In total, officials said the mayor made it to four sessions, Mrs. Rhee also made it to four, and Mr. Reinoso attended two.

“We’ve been doing pretty good,” Mr. Fenty said when stopped outside Eliot Junior High School in Northeast at about 7:30 p.m. — an hour and a half after the meetings were scheduled to begin. “I’ve made it to three, [Mrs. Rhee has] probably made it to more than that.”

The mayor also said the chancellor was recording the meetings, and school officials had access to written copies of testimony that were provided.

Mr. Fenty and Mrs. Rhee have proposed the school closings as a way to counter declining enrollment in the nearly 50,000-student system and fund new academic programs. The chancellor expects a final decision on shuttering the schools to be made as early as the end of the month.

Roughly 75 residents had signed up yesterday to testify on the closings proposal, but 154 had spoken by the end of the night. School officials said 411 persons attended the 23 simultaneous meetings, which were scheduled to be held in every quadrant of the city.

The approach was criticized by residents, who said it would prevent parents from bringing their concerns to the officials who needed to hear them most.

“Those are the two people that parents and community people need to address,” said Crystala Lewis, whose 4-year-old son attends pre-K at Stevens Elementary School in Northwest, which is slated to close. “And nine times out of 10, I doubt if anyone will have that actual opportunity to do so.”

At Taft Center on Perry Street in Northeast, Rudolph Knott showed up on behalf of his two children, ages 4 and 6, to voice his opposition to the closing of Burroughs Elementary.

Mr. Knott, 43, was one of about 10 people at the meeting when it started and the only person in attendance who had signed up in advance to testify.

Kaya Henderson, the school system’s deputy chancellor, hosted the meeting. Mr. Knott said he knew that Mr. Fenty and Mrs. Rhee would not attend and that it was frustrating.

“Like everyone else, you want the people that are going to be making the decisions to actually be hearing the testimony,” he said.

Meanwhile, about 100 people participated in the “people’s meeting” — a session held at the John A. Wilson Building in protest of the 23 simultaneous meetings and backed by council members Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, and Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat.

“With the 23 meetings, the community won’t have a say in what’s going on,” said Zein El-Amine of the Coalition to Save Our Neighborhood Schools, which sponsored the protest session. “We need the meetings to be set up so that at least Rhee is there.”

Mr. Thomas was not in attendance, and Mr. Barry said Mr. Thomas had a prior commitment in Jacksonville, Fla.

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