Monday, October 24, 2005

Attention: Anyone in the District who professes to put “Children First” needs to get over to Roosevelt High School between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. tonight for a D.C. Council hearing on modernizing the city’s crumbling schools.

“Numbers matter a lot. They send a powerful reminder to our officials that they work for us,” said Fix Our Schools spokesman Marc Borbely in a letter to encourage parental participation in the hearing that will determine the caliber of their children’s education in the future.

“Where’s the community outrage?” asks Elizabeth Davis, a language-arts teacher at Sousa Junior High School, who bristles about the double standard in which she sees politicians and educators working in modernized facilities while her students attend classes in some buildings that “would be on the city’s ‘Condemned: Do Not Admit Humans’ list if they were residential properties.”

To remind council members of their campaign pledges to fix schools first, teachers and union officials circulated hundreds of form letters signed by students and parents to be presented tonight.

“When [Vincent] Gray, Marion Barry and Carol Schwartz arrive at the hearing, they will be handed tons of letters,” Ms. Davis predicted.

Mr. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat; Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat; and Mrs. Schwartz, at-large Republican, are being targeted by the school advocates for appearing to waver on their promises during the last public meeting, Ms. Davis said.

This evening, the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation, led by Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, who is seeking election to the council chairman post, will hold its final public round table on Bill 16-250, the School Financing and Modernization Act of 2005, at Roosevelt High, 4301 13th St. NW.

The notice says the hearing is limited to proposals to fund provisions of the bill, including “lottery funds, ‘newly certified revenue,’ a special assessment on taxes including the hotel, cigarette and parking taxes, delaying the final reduction in income taxes called for in the Tax Parity Act, and other options” formulated to pay for a massive project to remodel and renovate shameful school buildings over the next five years.

The council is slated to vote on the measure, which will determine how, or even whether, to fix D.C. schools. Perhaps the modernization bill on the table is not the best because passage in its current state probably will require cuts in other programs and services, but it’s a starting point to transform promises into action.

It would be extremely helpful if school administrators provide parents, students and advocates with a reliable guide, a fair and comprehensive consolidation analysis, which is not designed to justify selling valuable school real estate, but that actually addresses shifting population and curriculum needs tailored to specific communities.

For example, one neighborhood may need more classrooms for language arts while another may need more for computer labs.

Ms. Davis is right: If D.C. leaders had as much political will to improve the abominable conditions of the city’s ancient school structures as they do to abandon the aging RFK Stadium and build a new baseball stadium, they’d find a way to finagle the budget to complete the more important modernization task.

Sadly, they don’t.

“Your presence is needed. Let the council know that [public school] supporters care about the condition of our schools,” Ms. Davis said, “Don’t tolerate the city giving $600 million to build a baseball stadium or a hotel conference center or a spy museum, and peanuts to fix our crumbling schools.”

If you can’t personally make tonight’s hearing to deliver your three-minute testimony, Mr. Borbely suggests that you send a written statement by Nov. 7 to be placed in the council’s record. Address it to Secretary of the Council, Room 5, Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004.

“I’ve become so frustrated with the school slogans that I put up on my classroom walls each year proclaiming ‘Children First’ and ‘Their Future is Now,’ only to invite them into classrooms, restrooms, hallways and cafeterias that resemble condemned storage warehouses,” Ms. Davis said.

It’s never enough to just fuss and fret or even protest about a problem. Someone wiser than I am said you have to be part of the solution.

Putting “Children First” requires much more than letting politicians get away with pedantic political rhetoric. You’ve got to put your voice and your vote where the elected city representatives can’t ignore it.

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