Lack of Parental Involvement Just who is upset about the mayor's school closings?

Do the Wrath: Steptoe stokes the rage against the Fenty machine.
Darrow Montgomery

Late Thursday evening, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry stood up to give a few words of inspiration to the crowd at the John A. Wilson Building, which had assembled to oppose the proposed closings of 23 city schools.

“You gotta believe you can make a difference!” he told the approximately 200 people in attendance.

LL scanned the same crowd that Barry addressed and saw some familiar faces. There was Ward 5 rabble-rouser Robert Brannum, who is a substitute teacher but has no children in D.C. Public Schools. There was activist Marc Borbely, a former DCPS teacher turned schools crusader who doesn’t have kids. At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz was there, briefly, and so was Romaine Thomas, mother of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. Both have been teachers, but neither has had a kid in DCPS in a long time.

Could there have been any fewer parents at a schools event?

LL queries rhetorically because, from his admittedly seat-of-his-pants analysis, it seems that those with the most at stake in the school closings account for a relatively small part of the outrage.

Why does it matter? Since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty proposed taking over the schools about a year ago, he’s yet to suffer a major defeat. Whether it’s been pushing through the takeover legislation, having Chancellor Michelle Rhee approved, or providing Rhee with the authority to fire central-office employees at will, Fenty has had to bend nary an inch to the D.C. Council, teachers, or schools activists.

But school closings—now there’s an issue guaranteed to give Hizzoner some heartburn, right? Closing one school is a tough enough proposition, but proposing 23 closings and other realignments might get folks awfully riled.

In fact, the meeting Thursday night has been the high-water mark of public outrage to date. It was organized by a group called the Coalition to Save Our Neighborhood Schools, a group of activists that grew partially out of Save Our Schools, a group dedicated to opposing the Fenty takeover.

In essence, it’s a lot of the same folks Fenty’s already steamrolled. So why should this time be any different?

LL arrived about a half-hour into the affair, after having attended one of the official DCPS meetings up at LaSalle Elementary in Riggs Park. There, about two dozen people showed up to weigh in on the potential closing of Backus Middle School, a few blocks down South Dakota Avenue NE.

Of those who showed up, only five chose to speak, and the bulk of the attendees were LaSalle teachers and employees, most of whom simply wanted more information or to express concern that elementary-age and middle-school-age children be kept well-separated. Only one person, at the very end, railed against the process as a whole.

After about 40 minutes, a lot of silence, and that mildly rancorous note, the meeting was over. Figures obtained from DCPS show a similar turnout across the city. Sixteen of 23 meetings were over in less than an hour. At three meetings, no attendees chose to testify.

The meeting at the Wilson Building had been billed as the “People’s Meeting,” an alternative to the 23 simultaneous official DCPS meetings, which attracted fewer than 500 people citywide. The atmosphere in the council’s fourth-floor hearing room wasn’t too far removed from a pro wrestling bout. In fact, the only thing missing from the People’s Meeting might have been an appearance from the People’s Champion, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The ringmaster was Ward 5 activist Carolyn Steptoe, who did a fine job stoking the crowd. Steptoe, along with Brannum, schools activists Cherita Whiting and Iris Toyer, DCPS social worker Candi Peterson, and Ward 5 parent Maria P. Jones, represent the brain trust behind the People’s Meeting.

Jones’ daughter attends Burroughs Elementary, which is up for closure (see “The Price Is Rightsize,” page 22). Whiting and Toyer have kids in DCPS, though not in schools slated for closure. Harry Thomas Jr., who has children in a to-be-shuttered school, helped organize the meeting but was absent on a Florida business trip. Councilmember Kwame Brown, who also has kids in DCPS, showed up but didn’t say anything more controversial than, “These are our schools. These are our children being closed.”

As far as uncomfortable politicos go, at one point, Washington Teachers’ Union President George Parker walked into the room. Steptoe welcomed him, then went on to call for a teachers’ strike. The room exploded in chants of “Call a teachers’ strike! Call a teachers’ strike! Call it now! Walk out! Walk out!”

At that, Parker looked much like LL looks after an enchilada dinner: queasy and uneasy. The chants went on for about a minute. Then someone noted that the WTU is contractually bound not to strike. Parker took off not long after.

Of those who stood to speak, most were teachers or former teachers, and the meeting was pocked by digression. A gentleman identifying himself as representing the Pan-African Liberation Organization and nonprofit Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers took the mike to give a rambling disquisition on the state of the city. Another fellow identified himself as a “meatcutter” and member of the Socialist Workers Party and decried how “under the system, the only thing they’re interested in is in creating obedient workers.”

After the meeting, LL approached a group of high-school- and college-age kids, about a dozen of whom were sitting in the crowd. None of them looked like DCPS parents, and in a group of about a half-dozen that LL queried, only one was a DCPS student. They had attended on behalf of the ANSWER Coalition, the all-purpose left-wing activist group.

In all, the People’s Meeting was as much a draw for those generally dissatisfied with Fenty’s quasi-dictatorial methods as it was for those pissed off about the schools.

Whiting admits that the meeting indeed attracted a lot of all-purpose Fenty malcontents, but she says the expanded group has the potential to derail the closures. “We have more people on board citywide. We have people who are just frustrated with Fenty, period. They say, ‘I was tricked, I was bamboozled,’” she says.

“You don’t have to be a parent to be affected,” she adds.

Thomas echoes that sentiment: “PTA stands for parent-teacher association. It’s not just parents.”

Jack Evans: Man of Change?

The undisputed political buzzword of this presidential election season is “change.” After the big win in the Iowa caucuses for Barack Obama—the guy who’s been pushing himself as the “change” candidate for months—competitors lined up to wrap themselves in the mantle of reform.

Also on the “change” bandwagon: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.

Earlier this month, Evans’ re-election campaign distributed a letter to his constituents, signed by the candidate. In the letter, Evans writes, “The need for change is clear in Ward 2, as it is all over the city.”

LL salutes Evans’ embrace of the political zeitgeist, as well as his courage, as the council’s longest-serving member, in holding himself out as the guy you’d want to go for to make a big break with the status quo.

Particularly ballsy is this passage: “The current property tax scandal illustrates how badly we need financial controls that protect our tax dollars and our city’s standing in financial markets—not to mention our public reputation.” Evans, of course, has been chair of the finance and revenue committee for nearly a decade—while

Harriette Walters & Co. allegedly stole some $40 million from the city. A November column from the Washington Post’s Colbert I. King, for instance, slammed Evans for ignoring warnings about the tax scam from D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols.

Also noteworthy: Evans’ embrace of the Fenty administration is complete. “[O]ur city also has a new team of smart, dedicated leaders—and I am pleased to join with them,” he wrote. During Fenty’s years on the council, Evans veiled oh-so-thinly his contempt for his hyperambitious colleague from Ward 4. When Fenty ran for mayor, Evans backed former Council Chairman Linda Cropp.

But since then, Evans has pulled in Fenty’s early endorsement, and when LL called the Evans campaign for comment, his call was returned by none other than Fenty political brain Tom Lindenfeld.

Evans faces neighborhood activist Cary Silverman in the September primary. After the letter appeared, Silverman sent LL an e-mail saying the following vis-à-vis Evans’ penchant for change: “I agree. Voters have a clear choice: With me they will get a Council Member with new energy, leadership, and a change in priorities to focus on neighborhood issues, who will work full-time for them. With Evans, they will have more of the same.”

Lindenfeld says that no politician—that he works for, anyway—can rest on his laurels: “Jack Evans has an interest in solving the needs of the future…with the experience and tenacity that he’s brought to being a councilmember to date.”

Political Potpourri

• More than 800 city Democrats showed up at McKinley Technology High School on Saturday to select delegates to this year’s national convention in Denver.

In a bellwether for the city’s presidential preferences, about 500 showed up to vote for Obama delegates, while only about 300 voted for Hillary Clinton pledges. That might have had something to do with Fenty’s big support for the Obama camp and his endorsement of a slate of Obama delegates. The mayor, however, was not in attendance, though LL ran into his political whiz kid, John Falcicchio, walking into the caucus rooms.

Whether or not the mayor’s slate, dubbed “Barack Gets D.C. the Vote,” had a good day or not was yet to be determined by LL’s press time, as about 40 challenged ballots remained to be counted. Those would be ballots cast by folks whose names did not appear on the Democratic voter rolls on hand that afternoon. Results are expected Thursday.

More drama: Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, Ward 5 Councilmember Thomas, and local labor honcho Joslyn N. Williams had all submitted their names to be considered for spots as Clinton delegates, but none of their names appeared on the Clinton ballots distributed on Saturday.

A spokesperson for Williams, president of the local AFL-CIO council, said he didn’t want to risk possibly supporting a candidate other than one his organization might endorse. Graham says he withdrew his name simply to give someone else a shot. “It doesn’t affect my support for Hillary Clinton. I want to emphasize that,” he says. Thomas expressed a similar sentiment, saying he’s got a good shot at being added to the delegation later in the process.

Graham served as a delegate for Al Gore in 2000 and was selected as a Howard Dean delegate in 2004, though he didn’t get to attend the convention due to John Kerry’s strong showing in the D.C. primary. “I’ve had the National Democratic Convention experience,” he says. “This year, I felt I would help someone else have the experience.”

As far as why he put his name forward in the first place, Graham says it was “because I was encouraged to do so. Then I decided what I decided.”

And even though he bowed out, Graham touts his electability: “I think I would have been selected. I think I had the votes.”

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Our Readers Say

I am troubled by some of the accuracy in your column.

You named four people who were not parents...but I understand by the Washington Post there was over 100 people in that meeting. Are you saying you interviewed them all. And the others are parents.

Jim Graham was also not a Dean Delagete. And if he was chosen he would have attended. This format did not exist years ago. If you won, you went.
According to the organizers, there were more than 200 people at the meeting, actually.

I talked to about 20 people who attended the People's Meeting and I recorded the affiliations of every person who took the mike. I interviewed several of the meeting's organizers at length. I also spoke to colleagues who attended other meetings. Hence the qualifier "admittedly seat-of-his-pants analysis."

As for Jim Graham, you're right. Before this year, the delegates were chosen after the primary vote. Should have said he "put his name forward as a Dean delegate" in 2004.
Jack Evans is not about change. Jack Evans is establishment that thumbs its nose at neighborhoods that are east of 16th Street. Logan Circle, Shaw, etc., do not get love from Jack.

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