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Native Intelligence
Local officials, too, violate home rule
(Published June 3, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

D.C. residents are a beleaguered lot.

Few, if any, are surprised when members of Congress impose yet another assault on democracy in the District. If it's spring and the flowers are in bloom and it's an election year, some goofy elected official sticks his or her neck in our business. They think it makes them look good back home.

But it is even more heinous when some of our own elected officials behave the same way. And the irony is totally lost on them. They just don't get it.

The irony, of course, is that some of the same people who lobbied Congress for voting representation for the District on "Lobby Day" in May are the same people who just a week later ignored what little democracy we have in the home rule charter by throwing out the D.C. Public Schools' budget and telling our democratically selected school board exactly how to spend the money.

The measure, sponsored by At-Large Councilman Phil Mendelson, requires the school system to spend roughly $496 million of an estimated $770 million budget directly on local schools. On the surface, that may look awfully good to constituents. But the reality is chaos.

Mendelson, who barely garnered 25 percent of the vote in a crowded field of candidates four years ago, says it is his response to complaints he received that some local schools' budgets will be reduced next year - even though the council increased the system's money.

Mendelson and his at-large colleagues, David Catania and Carol Schwartz, along with Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, Ward 3's Kathy Patterson and Ward 4's Adrian Fenty previously railed against the financial control board for micromanaging the District and blocking many of the council's efforts.

But these council members' actions have become as egregious as the now-dormant control board's, all under the justification that they were "protecting local schools."

You know the old phrase: The oppressed, when freed, become the oppressors.

I suspect Andrew Brimmer and Alice Rivlin, who chaired the control board, would be very proud of the council's actions.

What is even potentially worse is that it could jeopardize the continuation of the new school board of five elected and four appointed members. Hey, ladies and gentleman! There are people who support an all-appointed school board. It should not be forgotten that Mayor Anthony A. Williams is so angry that his appointed members are a little too independent that he might love to now have the all-appointed board that he originally proposed.

Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and her colleagues are furious and view the council's meddling as a violation of the home rule charter. Sources say the board is looking into legal action. The council says it is on firm legal ground and, since Congress still gives the city's budget a final stamp of approval, it will be Congress that is to blame for specific spending, not the council.

Talk about passing the buck.

I doubt Mendelson and his colleagues even understand that they are infringing on democracy. Frankly, as a group, their finger pointing and abysmal lack of understanding about what it takes to turn a school system around are also embarrassing.

Sources say Mendelson even had the audacity to ask District III school board member Tommy Wells for an election endorsement. Reportedly, Wells is livid at Mendelson and still stunned at what he views as ignorance on Mendelson's part.

It is distressing that Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says she doesn't even see the analogy. The District's congressional delegate says that since the mayor is still responsible for signing or vetoing the school system's budget, the council's action is not an infringement on the school board.

Norton says that if the school system were financed completely by independent bonding authority, then it would be another matter. While I think her assessment is not on target, it's actually not a bad idea. Seventy-five percent of the school systems in this country have independent financial authority. If the D.C. school board had autonomy, the micromanaging of the school system by the council would be eliminated.

Unfortunately, the nitpicking and escalating tensions between the council and the school board won't likely be resolved before the November election.

And we all know how elected officials like to use our children as political punching bags in an election year.

The finger pointing should be in full force come September, when the new school year begins.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator