-Our long hot summer will soon enough turn the bend of Labor Day and the September 14 primary which will select the Democratic nominee for Mayor, Council Chair and a number of races down the ballot. As many of you know, I have endorsed Mayor Adrian Fenty for reelection, but regardless of the election’s outcome, the city faces 5 key issues which the Mayor and the Council will have to confront after all the speeches are done and the buttons and signs are put away. We’ll talk about two of them today:
1. Schools. This continues to be one of the central issues facing the city, and historically has broken down like this: “rich” kids go to private or parochial schools and “poor” kids are stuck in run down schools with no future. Over the past 30 years the city has hemorrhaged middle class people, but good schools are key to retaining middle class families in the city and improving outcomes for low income kids. Mayor Fenty has made some pretty big changes, starting with authoring the Schools Facilities Modernization Financing Act as a Councilmember, and of course, as Mayor, implementing the takeover of the school system and installing Chancellor Michele Rhee as its head. As a result of the first legislation and a lot of hard work by Allen Lew and his facilities team, our school construction and maintenance efforts are the best they have been in a generation, by far. At some point credit is due to the Mayor for this. The other changes have been somewhat more controversial, but I believe Fenty and Rhee are on the right track by trying to bring more accountability into the system. My observation over the years has been this: for years we had a performance evaluation system where almost by magic no one was ever fired for lack of performance, but our schools were at the same time among the worst performing in the nation. Fenty has quite correctly identified this as fundamentally problematic and has sought to change old ways of doing business.
2. Fiscal responsibility. As Chair of the Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, you’ve seen me write about this topic often, and it continues to be a concern of mine. Fortunately, the District has the relative stability of the federal employment base, but in the FY 2011 budget cycle this spring, I expressed a number of concerns which all go back to this one notion: we can’t live beyond our means. For the last several years we’ve spent down revenue from our fund balances, which were once over $1.5 billion but which now are down to about $500 million. I believe the decline in our revenue — chiefly in the realm of commercial property — is not likely to return in the near term. A certain amount of our economy through the 2000’s was built on the shaky foundation of irrational exuberance. Yet the size of our government has not been restrained in proportion to the shrinking revenue. Using our fund balance the past three year has allowed us to paper over the problem, but I believe the next mayor and council won’t have this luxury — and I’ll note I was the only Member of the Council to vote against the budget this past year.
Those are the two biggest issues we’ll face next year. Next column we’ll talk about three more.
The author is a city councilmember representing District Ward 2.