Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 3/24/10

By Tom Sherwood
|  Wednesday, Mar 24, 2010  |  Updated 6:37 AM EDT
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The Old School Board Is Back!

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You remember the old school board days. They were a feeding frenzy of elected and/or appointed members weighing in on personnel and school issues large and small, questioning why this or that was or wasn’t being done.

It was day-to-day meddling of the highest order.

And, of course, you remember just how great that school system was for everybody.

“Amnesia,” said at-large D.C. Council member David Catania Monday during a hearing in which Chancellor Michelle Rhee was peppered with all manner of questions on detailed school matters, rather than broad policy issues.

Catania said too many have forgotten what the school system was like before the mayoral takeover three years ago. “Amnesia,” he repeated, in case anyone had forgotten he said it the first time.

Several council members homed in on Hardy Middle School, which draws students from around the city to its campus in Georgetown. Rhee has reassigned popular principal Patrick Pope to create a true citywide school to mirror Hardy, and angry parents have turned to council members, who fussed with Rhee over the change. But she said she’s sticking to her decision.

Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas talked about Ward 5 schools. He said he wishes Rhee would be more respectful to teachers and parents who feel left out.

Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham focused on Bruce-Monroe Elementary, which he said was “filthy.” He said he wouldn’t eat lunch there because the school was so dirty. Rhee said the school system was on it.

And so it went.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray apparently has decided that there is enough frustration with Rhee’s reforms that it’s politically safe for him to plan his possible run for mayor around being a leader in criticizing Rhee.

But it was mostly about “process” for Gray -- how Rhee doesn’t keep the council informed and how she doesn’t really follow its direction. (He also added his concerns about the Hardy principal.)

We noticed that Gray worked his political campaign slogan “one city” into one of his concluding remarks. “I believe that together as one city we can overcome this challenge” of school reform, he said. Was it a tryout for his mayoral campaign?

Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry was the toughest on Rhee, saying that no one in Ward 8, or Ward 7 for that matter, believes what she says.

The council chamber was amused when Barry criticized Rhee for hiring a public relations firm to help her but then admitted he had “used a spin doctor from time to time” in his own turbulent political career.

In terms of raw politics, Rhee should hope that Barry leads the public criticism of her. Nothing could make many voters, white and black, more likely to support her.

But maybe all council members should ask themselves whether they really want to become the old school board, burrowing down into the nitty-gritty of school issues like it did Monday.

The council voted for school reform. Members gave Mayor Adrian Fenty control of the schools and said they expected it would take at least five years of work to turn things around.

It’s been three years, and the council has become the school board. It will be interesting to see if the voters like this shift.

• Council Reunion

Apart from any current political issues, the council is celebrating 35 years of serving as the city’s legislative body with city, county and state authority.

Last week there was a reunion of former staffers and elected officials in the John A. Wilson Building.

“It was over 300 folks,” said former Ward 3 staffer Jeffrey Slavin, who now is mayor of Somerset in Montgomery County. Slavin worked for the late Polly Shackleton in Ward 3.

“No speeches, nice food,” Slavin said of the party. “I found it mind-boggling to imagine the collective impact this group of folks had had on the progress made in the District over the last 35 years. It was truly like a family reunion.”

Many former council members attended, but former Ward 4 Council member Adrian Fenty did not.

Developer R. Donahue Peebles, still saying he's weighing a race for mayor, dropped by.

Chairman Gray hosted the event, but we’re told he stayed away from mayoral talk.

• More Peebles

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce has picked Peebles to be guest speaker at its May 20 summit and expo at the Renaissance Hotel. We’re still trying to decide if that’s a slam against Fenty. We’ll surely be in the thick of campaign season by that date. And maybe Peebles, who was in before he was out, will have decided whether he’s in or not.
 

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