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Governing backwards

(Published February 24, 2003)

It's admirable that a handful of citizens turned out last week in response to Mayor Anthony A. Williams' call for help to shovel snow at D.C. public schools.

But the mayor's call for volunteer help, in this case, also highlighted the increasing dysfunction in the D.C. government's capacity to provide basic services to city residents.

In emergencies - especially when they are predicted long in advance, as was the Presidents' Day weekend snowstorm - citizens should be able to depend upon their government to adequately perform its basic duties.

This time, the government failed that task. In all fairness, the D.C. government was not alone. Metro, most notably, performed miserably at a time when its services were most needed.

When the government cannot handle a forecasted 16-inch snowfall that never reached blizzard proportions, we shudder to think how officials would perform if a sudden, large-scale terrorist attack were to befall the nation's capital.

There's a big problem in our government that no one is addressing, as officials continually pat themselves on the back for producing balanced budgets or multimillion-dollar surpluses at the end of every budget year.

Elected officials have allowed government managers' focus to stray so far from government's purpose that the government - both local and federal, in the nation's capital - can no longer properly serve the public.

The government is being managed backwards. Instead of focusing on the public's needs and then appropriately funding those needs, government officials are starting with a pot of money and then doling it out until it runs out. That shortsighted approach to government management is a recipe for failure.

As an example, let's return to the mayor's shovel brigade at D.C. public schools. If the school system's maintenance needs were adequately funded, government employees would be available at every one of the almost 150 schools with the proper equipment for clearing snow. They would also be there for cutting grass, fixing broken windows, mopping floors, repairing stopped-up toilets, maintaining heating systems and performing all of those other routinely expected chores.

But flash back to 1998. The congressionally imposed financial control board was at the height of trampling home rule and handing out sole-source contracts to "fix" the D.C. government, including the public schools. Until mid-year, when he resigned to run for mayor, Tony Williams was overseeing the District's purse strings as chief financial officer.

Then-Superintendent J.W. Becton Jr., the retired general, and his chief academic officer, Arlene Ackerman, initially recommended a $3.1 million increase in custodial and engineering personnel for fiscal 1999. The school system's existing maintenance staff at that time was able to maintain only 10.3 million square feet of the 11.8 million total in school facilities, using 18,000 square feet per worker as the standard.

But when push came to shove, top officials decided that government performance didn't matter at budget time. More than 300 maintenance workers employed in the public schools lost their jobs. They haven't been replaced, despite repeated calls by the D.C. Board of Education for more in-house maintenance help. The mayor and the city council have continually pared down the school board's requests for funding to meet the public's needs.

And what could those 300 maintenance workers, if they were still employed, do for the taxpayers? Last week, they could have cleared snow so that 68,000 children could get to school.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator