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Opinion: A "Real" Return to School

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Opinion: A "Real" Return to School

NBCWashington.com

Councilman David Catania

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So, the holidays are over and the children will soon be back in school.

And, so, too, will the D.C. Council.

For the first time since 2007, the council has a full-fledged education committee. Oversight of the city’s schools no longer will be in the “Committee of the Whole,” where all 13 members were responsible for it, which meant no one was.

And this committee will be chaired by independent at-large member David Catania, who is not known for sailing along with the status quo. Chancellor Kaya Henderson “should be expecting more pointed attention” to her reform efforts, one veteran political observer noted.

In fact, the chancellor should expect a lot more monitoring and oversight from Catania, but don’t assume that will be a bad thing for her.

“She and David have a pretty good relationship already,” said another insider. “There’s mutual respect, [and] they’ve met a lot over the past couple of weeks.” And this was before Catania was certain that he’d be appointed by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

This might be a good time to recall that Mendelson voted against the mayoral takeover of schools. He has now picked a bulldog member to head the new education committee. In Catania’s previous post atop the Committee on Health, some people joked or ruefully said, the veteran legislator “ran” the health agencies rather than overseeing them.

“He drove the health care agenda,” one involved admirer said, from doggedly saving the United Medical Center in Southeast to providing HIV/AIDS funding, gaining groundbreaking dental services for low-income families and dramatically increasing Medicaid coverage for the city’s poorest uninsured.

There are better health outcomes and the city is a leader in the nation with its reforms, the insider said.

But back to school.

When the council held its hearings on looming school closings, Catania walked in with a huge binder filled with details on every school. Again, this was before he became education chair. The binder detailed every aspect of each school — enrollment, test scores, staffing, renovations, et cetera.

He asked pointed questions about things like staff-to-teacher ratios. Mind-numbing television (alas!), but on point. Since then, Catania’s staff has created similar binders for nearly 200 school buildings, both public and charter.

Given Catania’s attention to detail, we could be in for the first real dissection of our $1 billion school system and school reform — with all its pluses and minuses.

While we can expect “Catania to be Catania,” with his sometimes withering temperament when things are out of sorts, should Chancellor Henderson be even a little bit worried?

The insiders we consulted suggested it could be a rocky road but that Henderson may welcome Catania’s passionate dive into education. He doesn’t want it to falter or fail — that wouldn’t make him look good. Just criticizing? Lots of people can criticize.

Instead, one person said, expect Catania to be aggressive in highlighting shortcomings and bureaucratic bottlenecks to push funding for real returns. The new committee chair also will influence the role of the Washington Teachers Union, too. (He’s already met with union president Nathan Saunders.) In that way, Catania could become a powerful ally for Henderson.

“Kaya almost wants her feet to be held to the fire,” the insider said. It will give her support to make the tough decisions. Right now, with all that Mayor Vincent Gray has on his plate, the mayor can’t be the No. 1 backer of Henderson.

The new era starts this month when Henderson announces her final list in the latest round of school closings. There is no formal role for the council — and no required vote — but we’ll see how things move along from here.

■ Catania’s committee. The chairs of council committees hold great sway over what those committees do. But the other members count, too.

Those on the new education committee include Marion Barry (Ward 8) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) — both former school board members — as well as Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) and newcomer David Grosso (at-large).

It is essentially the same committee that Catania had as Health Committee chair; the only difference is that Grosso replaces Mary Cheh (Ward 3). Grosso has a kind of earnestness and, as a former council staffer, a knowledge base to get up to speed quickly. Grosso also asked to be on education and likely will work well with Catania.

But what of Barry? He and Catania had another of their occasional blowout rhetorical exchanges recently, with Catania saying Barry is a worn-out, past-his-prime politician. (We’re cleaning it up a bit.)

But Catania and Barry have a thorough understanding of each other. They can be remarkably collegial — almost stunningly so. And besides, Barry likely will spend more time on his workforce development committee.

So pull up a chair and keep your eyes on the Education Committee.

■ Slurpee to slim? The most surprising news this past week came from The New York Times:

“The chain that is home of the Slurpee, Big Gulp and self-serve nachos with chili and cheese is betting that consumers will stop in for yogurt parfaits, crudité and lean turkey on whole wheat bread.”

That’s right, 7-Eleven wants franchises to begin shifting stock to have 20 percent of their shelves devoted to healthy food options. Good luck! We’ve generally found bottled water about the best, least-fattening thing available there on our infrequent trips.

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