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Mr. Mayor, walk the talk
(Published November 19, 2001)

Two years ago, Mayor Anthony A. Williams began beating the drum loudly about his desire to run the D.C. Public Schools. Even though he had no direct legal authority or responsibility at the time for the schools’ performance, the mayor contended that he would be blamed anyway if the schools did not improve during his term.

What followed was six months of often-heated debate in meeting after meeting across this community about the mayor’s proposal – and various revisions of it – to eliminate the all-elected school board and replace it with a board of mayoral appointees.

The result was a divisive special election at which city voters, by a less than 900-vote margin, agreed to the mayor’s compromise with the D.C. Council. The compromise changed the city charter by temporarily replacing the all-elected school board with a nine-member body of five elected members, the board president among them, and four who are appointed by the mayor. The new board began serving in January of this year.

The mayor was so committed to the need for this new structure that he ended up getting reprimanded by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics’ Office of Campaign Finance for improperly allowing members of his staff to use city resources on city time to campaign in favor of the charter amendment’s passage. More than a year later, the mayor still has not provided the public accounting that he promised of how much his administration misspent in city tax dollars to tell people how they should vote.

In recent months, we haven’t heard Mayor Williams say much publicly about his commitment to putting "Children First" by improving the public schools. Even after the recent discovery of an $80 million deficit in the schools’ budget, Mayor Williams – who previously served as the city’s chief financial officer – has chosen to remain in the background.

What we have seen recently is the mayor publicly shrug at his own tardiness in selecting a person to replace school board appointee Robert Peck, who announced in early August that he would resign his seat to assume leadership of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. (Mr. Mayor, schoolchildren who have their own problems with tardiness and truancy are reading this.)

At the time, the mayor confidently said he would announce a replacement right after Labor Day – a week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks disrupted normal functions. With Thanksgiving a few days away at this writing, the mayor has yet to fill the vacant position. Apparently, it’s too hard to find someone who meets the mayor’s qualifications among a city of almost 600,000 residents – even though the mayor said that he already had a short list from his previous round of appointments.

How important are these mayoral appointees on the school board, anyway, if the mayor sees no urgency in replacing one? His tardiness – and especially his blasé response to questions about it – calls into question Mayor Williams’ commitment to our public schoolchildren and the stated need for mayoral involvement to improve the schools.

When it comes to D.C. Public Schools, the mayor insisted on inserting himself into a process from which he was legally excluded. The voters complied with the mayor’s request. Now it’s up to the mayor to deliver the goods.

If the mayor can’t live up to his own standards of performance, how can he expect others in our government to do so?

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator