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D.C. Agenda skewed views of residents

(Published June 19, 2000)


Special to The Common Denominator

When some Washington grassroots activists try to explain the fear and loathing they feel toward the school board reform referendum coming up for a vote on June 27 -- and toward the political process that gave birth to it -- they tell stories like this one.

Last November, D.C. League of Women Voters President Elizabeth Martin joined about 60 other Washingtonians in a series of four weekly "convenings" on the topic of school reform. The meetings, held at the Brookings Institution, were organized by a nonprofit group called D.C. Agenda.

D.C. Agenda is an offshoot of the Federal City Council -- the powerful, active and secretive pro-business group founded and still closely supported by The Washington Post. (Metro and MCI Center were initially Federal City Council projects.) D.C. Agenda has energetically spearheaded business-minded reforms in Washington during the control board era. The Brookings Institution employs Alice M. Rivlin, who was instrumental in creating the control board when she was director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and now serves as its presidentially appointed chairman.

The meetings last November centered on the re-structuring of the District’s all-elected Board of Education -- a subject being debated that same month at D.C. City Council hearings led by education committee chair Kevin Chavous, D-Ward 7.

Everybody invited by D.C. Agenda -- local leaders from government, business, churches, universities and community groups -- knew that Congress, through the control board, was scheduled to pass back control of D.C. public schools to the D.C. Board of Education on June 30, 2000.

And everybody knew that Congress was making increasingly loud noises about the need for reform of the local school board before it could resume its duties. Out of the council’s deliberations would come the local response to Congress’s pressure.

At the D.C. Agenda meetings, Martin and the other attendees heard from such local presenters as school board reform advocate Joshua Wyner of the D.C. Appleseed Center, and from school board members from such distant cities as Charlotte and Seattle.

"There was lots of talk, lots of chances to ask questions," remembered Martin. "I thought the group was pretty split" between supporters of the current all-elected school board and a board either partially or completely appointed by the mayor, she said.

So Martin said she was surprised to discover that late in November, D.C. Agenda representatives misrepresented the meetings’ outcome to a council committee. D.C. Agenda not only lobbied the council for a change to an all or partly appointed school board, but also told the council members that the Brookings gatherings had showed "a decided preference for a combination (appointed-elected) board."

Martin dashed off a letter of protest. "I did not think that’s what we agreed to," she said. "So I wrote a letter to them setting that out."

Others agreed with Martin’s view. School activist Iris J. Toyer said, "It was very clear to me that D.C. Agenda had an agenda. The presentations were slanted toward people like Josh Wyner and Mary Levy, who wanted to reform the board. Clearly," she said, "they were going for an appointed board."

A senior city council staff member, who asked not to be identified, was blunt. "D.C. Agenda cooked the books," she said. "They issued their report and quoted the few people who’d spoken out strongly for an appointed board."

D.C. Agenda’s Carrie Thornhill, who organized the Brookings meetings, disputed Martin’s version of events. "Yes, I remember the League’s writing to us. And I disagreed with that." She said that D.C. Agenda had tried to make the meetings as inclusive as possible.

In any case, D.C. Agenda stuck by its characterization -- and kept up its lobbying. And the organization got, according to critics, what it had wanted all along: an appearance of broad local support for what was in fact its own goal -- either an all or at least partially appointed school board.

Some say D.C. Agenda’s lobbying was effective. They point to its close ties to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, as well as to the Post, in whose editorials harshly attacking both the council and the elected school board some heard echoes of D.C. Agenda’s report.

And at the recent kickoff for his campaign in favor of a "yes" vote at the June 27 special election, Mayor Williams praised Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward 6, as the author of the hybrid school board proposal now before the voters. Last week Ambrose confirmed that she "looked at D.C. Agenda’s report" and used it as "one of" the sources for her hybrid proposal.

But Phil Mendelson, D-At Large, dismissed the idea that D.C. Agenda had influenced the legislation. "The hybrid was a compromise between the council and the mayor," he said. "I don’t think D.C. Agenda had anything to do with it."

But whatever D.C. Agenda’s clout, many D.C. community activists say the process that created the proposed charter amendment engaged far too few people.

"All of the people who are now on the ‘Just Say No’ side were ignored, put on the defensive," said the League’s Eleanor Hart. "We never had a community examination – ‘Let’s reason together.’

"This was done under pressure -- to please the powers that be, the control board. …It was kind of a pressured, ugly process. We should try to avoid it in the future."

Said Anise Jenkins of Stand Up for Democracy, "This referendum is just a power grab all the way down the line. The Congress wants to run the schools -- and the budget, and so on….Why should the citizens vote on something that’s a power play that’s got nothing to do with our interests?"

To Susan Gushue of D.C. PACE, a group of parents trying to open the public schools to greater parental involvement, D.C. Agenda is just one example of a business and institutional class that wants local power, but not local involvement.

"They don’t like it when they hear that the garbage isn’t being collected or there’s snow in the streets, because it makes the city look bad around the country and it might hurt their business interests," she said. "They don’t care if the schools are fixed. They just don’t want to hear any more about them being broken."

Gushue pointed to the control board’s handling of its relationship with the elected school board as an example of a local institution damaged rather than aided by Washington’s current political dynamics.

"By the way the control board took power and cut the school board out of anything important, they guaranteed that the school board would spend their time on petty matters," she said. "They completely failed in helping the elected school board get to where they needed to be by June 30."

The biggest blow to local institutions came last February, in the midst of that scramble, when the control board overruled both the council and the mayor, say community leaders.

On Feb. 2, the council voted out a painfully achieved compromise with the mayor that would have put before D.C. voters the choice of either a nine-member elected board (most council members’ preference) or a five-member all-appointed board (the mayor’s favored plan).

But, said the senior council staffer, council members "were told in late-night phone calls that the control board would slice ‘em up if they didn’t countenance an appointed board." Control board chairman Rivlin made it clear, according to this council source, that "the important people in our life" – the District’s congressional overseers – "wanted change, or they’d just re-write the charter themselves."

Willie Lynch, chief of staff for Councilman Chavous, acknowledged that "yes, there were meetings" between key council members and the control board. "The control board said, ‘We’re not going there. We’re not going to let the voters have that choice.’"

Eventually, the mayor and the council bowed to control board pressure and withdrew that bill – and substituted the current so-called "hybrid" school board proposal.

"Does the council believe that the control board stepping in was an intrusion on home rule?" asked Lynch. "Yes, they do. But when they were backed into a corner, they believed that this was the best they could do."

Wyner defended the legitimacy of the process. "I don’t know what all of the influences were on the council," he said. "I’m saying the council did what it did. And now a majority of the voters will have their say. I don’t know anything more democratic than that."

Gushue said there is no evidence that a hybrid board would make any difference in resolving problems in the schools. "I’d like to see a flow chart showing how some problem we’ve had in the past is going to be better in the future because we have some appointed (school board) members," she said.

"The school system is not Public Works," she said. "You can’t just order edicts from above and expect that to make real improvements."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator