The question on everyone’s mind these days is: What’s next for school reform? On Wednesday, October 13, Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced her resignation, and Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray jointly announced the appointment of Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, to serve as interim Chancellor. I am a big fan and supporter of Rhee. She started to tackle some very important issues which had not been addressed before: closing down underutilized facilities to maximize efficiencies and support-service costs (which helps put money back in the classroom where it belongs), instituting a system for evaluating teachers, and getting a groundbreaking union contract approved which takes performance and meritorious performance into account, among others. Did she do everything right? No. But fundamentally I believe she was going in the right direction. Just a few short years ago, we had no plan for fixing up or building new schools, and we had mediocre outcomes for our children with no one – from top to bottom – ever losing their job over poor performance. These things had to change and, under Rhee, they did. I was an early supporter of Mayoral control of the schools long before it was popular. It was my main theme when I ran for Mayor in 1998. I am supportive of the actions taken yesterday by the Mayor and Chairman to install Ms. Henderson on this basis. She gives every indication of having not only the spirit of a reformer, but substantive experience in the District, particularly in helping continue to bring about change. I hope she will bring many of the same reformer qualities to the job while maintaining a constructive working relationship with Gray. As Chairman Gray has stated on multiple occasions, school reform is bigger than any one person, and we must work to see that this is so by continuing to focus on substantive issues. Two of the most pressing tasks ahead in the near future are of course implementing the new union contract, as well as fine-tuning the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. We cannot go back to the days when no one was ever held accountable. All of this must be done in the climate of a $400 million budget shortfall and continued overspending in our school system. Getting this right – and I agree there are various sensitivities involved – is nonetheless important for the future of our children and our city.
-We write in response to a press release and neighborhood mailing by Tudor Place Foundation announcing the public presentation of a Master Plan for Tudor Place, the historic house museum and garden in Georgetown. The Plan includes the construction of a two-story above ground Visitor Center on 31st Street, a large one story Education Center behind 1670 31st Street, a large Greenhouse visible from 32nd Street, and a large Collections Storage addition at the south end of the historic Garage that currently tops out at six stories above 32nd Street. All of these projects are to be located at the perimeter of the property and will transform the Tudor Place from a residential into an institutional property and will diminish its historic character. We, the undersigned sixty-plus neighbors of Tudor Place, are adamantly opposed to several aspects of this plan. We believe that other community residents, if faced with the same circumstances, would react as we have—politely, proactively and persistently—to create a plan satisfactory to all parties. We support the goals of this Master Plan, which are to ensure the long-term preservation of the historic house and the archives and collections, to better secure the property, and to continue the educational mission of the Foundation. We live on the streets around Tudor Place, and we value the historic house, especially its landscape. We have been staunch supporters of Tudor Place over the years, volunteering time and donating funds. We have testified at past BZA hearings in support of Tudor Place. When we first learned of the Master Plan earlier this year, we were stunned that the Plan had been in preparation for two years without any consultation with the surrounding community. We were shocked by the scope of the proposed plan: a near 50% increase (about 10,000 SF) to the existing physical plant at Tudor Place (about 21,000 SF including the 10,000 SF main house). Since then, a “working group” of neighbors has generated alternatives that would accommodate the expressed needs of Tudor Place while reducing the impact of the proposed construction on neighboring properties. While Tudor Place has responded with minor adjustments, the most negative aspects of the original Plan remain. When asked about digitizing the archives and storing them offsite so that the building space could be reduced, Tudor Place told us that digitizing was very expensive and that the collections should not leave the property. We accepted that. We asked about Tudor Place purchasing one of the larger nearby houses and configuring it to accommodate their needs. We were told that was too expensive. We asked if the historic value of the 1960s fallout shelter preempted its use as collections storage. After being initially told that Tudor Place would consider this option, we have since been told that the fallout shelter will not be considered for collections storage. We have accepted that. We asked if the Greenhouse could be located on the south side of the historic garage building where a smaller greenhouse is now located. We were told that while this could be acceptable, it was however the only suitable location for the planned collections storage facility. We have NOT accepted this. Tudor Place has done little to accommodate our concerns and has dismissed our proposed alternatives as inefficient or too expensive. The obscenely large collections storage addition to an already enormous building along 32nd Street has now been reduced to a very large addition, still larger and rising much higher than the houses that face it. We proposed placing this storage facility underground. The large one-story Education Center is still proposed a short distance from neighbors’ properties. We proposed locating it closer to the existing building where it would have little or no impact. The Greenhouse has been reduced slightly in size but will still be a dominant presence in the currently vegetated hillside. We have presented Tudor Place with viable alternatives to their Plan that would satisfy their needs as well as the concerns of the neighbors. This $10-12 million plan will take Tudor Place into its next 50 years. Isn’t doing the right thing worth some minor sacrifices in efficiency or cost? We are looking for a Plan that will unite the neighborhood in support. Signed Neighbors of Tudor Place Jennifer and Tim Altemus Melissa and Doug Anderson Laura Blood John Boffa Mary Bradshaw Maria Burke Julie Chase Carl Colby and Dorothy Browning Kathy Bissell and Lee Congdon Mary Ellen Connell Paul Deveney Ellen Clare and Scott Dreyer Duane Ford Robert Gabriel Margaret and Stephen Goldsmith Helen Darling and Bradford Gray Edward and Vi Fightner Susan Gschwendtner Sally Hamlin Patricia Hanower Gretchen Handwerger Laura Harper and Arnold Robert Bill Helin John Hirsh John Hlinko Laine Katz Kate Langdon Dana Madalon Jack Maier Nell Mehlman Mary Mervene Gerald Musarra Nancy Paul Carlos Ortiz Georgina Owen and Outerbridge Horsey Corry and Jim Rooks Carol and Leigh Seaver Leigh Stringer Mindy and Dwight Smith George and Elizabeth Stevens Denise and Les Taylor Danielle Tarraf and Philipp Steiner Hardy Weiting Jane Wilson Lawrence Williams Dorothy Worthington
There’s no question that education is probably the most important issue in this 2010 Democratic Primary election campaign—it resonates not only for the top slots, but all the way down the line. In the mayoral race, it’s the issue – or should be – because it’s reflective of the apparently second biggest issue of the campaign, which is Mayor Adrian Fenty’s aggressive style of governing. Here’s where the education thing comes in: Fenty’s choice to be school chancellor Michelle Rhee performs her job very much the same way, often with a tin ear, instituting massive, disruptive and sometimes hurtful changes in the name of the children and school reform, knowing that the mayor has her back. The Fenty-Rhee style has resulted in nearly irreversible changes in the school system, improvement in test scores (although, to paraphrase, school is still out on the long-term validity of the scores), increased graduation and enrollment – not to mention infrastructure. But it has also brought about a lot of bitterness over both leaders’ refusal to play well with others, which is to say in Rhee’s case that she does not consult or work with parents, and in Fenty’s case, his refusal to work with the city council and others. One forum on education was already held early this summer, a forum at which Fenty proved a no show. Another was held recently at Sumner School, sponsored by DC Voice and CEO (Communities for Education Organizing), a coalition of DC-based organizations that are working towards improving public education. The forum invited all candidates at all levels to participate, but this time neither Fenty nor Gray came. But City Council Chair candidates Kwame Brown and Vincent Orange made it, as did both Democratic candidates for an at large seat, incumbent Phil Mendelson and his young challenger Clark Ray. So did all sorts of other candidates including second rung mayoral candidates, Statehood and Green Party Candidates and the undaunted Faith, with a horn that might have been fit for an emperor’s arrival. (Faith, an advocate for the arts, in previous mayoral runs, tended to blow a few notes on a trumpet at candidate forums.) Given the large number of candidates on hand, and a standing-room only audience, it all made for an unwieldy, but lively evening, with organization members throwing questions at candidates who chose to answer them, and broadening to audience members which tended towards parents. Because several questions were about parent participation in the education process—everyone wanted more and many felt more than a little bitter about actions taken without parent consultation—the evening spent a lot of time on the topic. The general approach seemed to be that most candidates and even more members of the audience thought there weren’t nearly enough parental roles in the decision-making process. In fact, there was a general agreement that a holistic approach—this from David Schwartzman—that makes neighborhood schools a center for community activities, to be used not only by students and teachers, but parents, would work wonders. One parent was still bitter about the chancellor’s transferring of the very popular Hardy School principal. “We had no input in this,” she said. “Nobody called us, nobody asked us. There was absolutely no reason to do this. She never informed or consulted with us.” Some candidates—at large council candidate Darryl Moch—suggested that while a mayoral takeover of the school was in general was a good idea, it didn’t work in Fenty’s case. “The form needs to be restructured to eliminate the dictatorial potential of the Mayor’s office.” It was the non-traditional candidates who don’t usually get too much attention in the media who were not pleased with the council, the Mayor, or Rhee. “I want to see the council have real oversight of the chancellor,” Calvin Gurley, a write-in candidate for council chair said. “The Council has been an inept partner in oversight of the schools.” Vincent Orange, in referring to the mayoral takeover, said, “I support anybody that delivers results. Meanwhile, the campaign moved inexorably towards its climax on September 14, with an air of almost complete uncertainty. People were anxiously awaiting news of polls, amid rumors of poll results. A small sampling-poll by something called the Clarus Research Group (501 Registered Democrats were polled) found that Gray held a dead-heat lead of 39% to 36% over Fenty among all voters and an improved 41-36 percent lead over likely-to-vote voters. The media poured over this little-chicken sized poll as if it was a Chicken Little pronouncement, until every possible feather of possibility was plucked. The big number was likely the 20% undecided—or more—that are still out there. Talk to your neighbor and you’re likely to find that many folks haven’t made up their minds, and the radio debate between Fenty and Gray probably didn’t solidify things much. Gray often gave his talking points and Fenty, having to defend himself again, snapped at Tom Sherwood that he had interrupted him. At Arena Stage, where Fenty showed up late for a 60th anniversary celebration, Fenty managed to use the occasion to lay claim to credit for the ongoing refurbishment of the Southwest waterfront. Inside, reporters cornered him for a little-reported controversy about the Washington Marathon. An exasperated Fenty said “I can’t answer some of these things. I’m not very good at having to defend myself from stuff I don’t know anything about,” he said. Apparently, the Fenty camp is now taking people’s problems with the mayor’s governing style seriously enough that Fenty is on a kind of apology tour, saying he’s sorry for his admitted distancing from regular people, about not listening and so on. It’s something of a sackcloth tactic, like a king lashing himself so that he stays out of trouble with the pope. The atmosphere is unsettled probably because some things haven’t been settled. There’s been very little talk on the campaign trail about the last batch of teacher firings and very real debate about the evaluation system that caused them. Nothing much has been made of the generational gap between Fenty and Gray. Both candidates have tended to be more active when it comes to negativity, especially Fenty. Something similar is happening on the chairman’s level. According to that one poll, Kwame Brown has a significant lead, but Orange nabbed the Washington Post endorsement, something he can hang his hat on, considering its effusive endorsement of Fenty. Neither candidate appears so far to have engendered much enthusiasm. But in many ways it’s hard to predict. Maybe, like Becket’s bums, we’re just waiting. Not for Godot, but the Post poll.
Four years ago, two years ago, last year at this time, or even in the spring, if you suggested to anybody that Mayor Adrian Fenty might be behind as much as 13 to 17 percent in the polls in his re-election campaign against City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, they might have brought the guys in the white jackets for you. This was the same Adrian Fenty who had swept into office with an unprecedented victory over Chairman Linda Cropp, winning every precinct and ward in the city, which surely spelled MANDATE in every respect. Fenty ran on school reform. “Judge me by what we’ve accomplished there,” he said. During the campaign, he did not say he was going to go for a mayoral takeover of the school system, which, when Mayor Anthony Williams tried it, he voted against as a Ward 4 councilmember. But that’s exactly what he did on day one after his inauguration — he introduced legislation that gave him control over the schools, which would be run by a chancellor that he would choose once the legislation was approved. The legislation made its way through a lengthy but thorough hearing process, shepherded effectively by Vincent Gray, who had won the council chairman race, and fully supported the takeover. At that time the mayor invited the council to be partners with him in his efforts to reform the schools. Once the legislation was in place, Fenty selected a young, little-known educator named Michelle Rhee to be chancellor, without consulting the council or too many other persons in Washington. It was done in the clumsiest way possible — the Washington Post got the news before Chairman Gray did. Still, Rhee came highly recommended by national figures, such as the chancellor of the New York school system, which was also in the midst of a major school overhaul. Fenty’s major effort — school reform — was about to take off. Meanwhile, the city was still thriving under his rule and developments moved forward. Under the new Chief of Police Cathy Lanier, another controversial choice, the crime rate and homicides in particular declined dramatically. Fenty looked politically bulletproof, and in retrospect he sometimes acted like it, especially when he met opposition. He was still a young man in a hurry to get things done, but as late as a year ago Fenty’s re-election prospects looked solid, with a big money lead over any prospective candidate. His successes and achievement stood, and still do. The school reform movement was moving — test scores were rising, although erratically, the infrastructure improved dramatically and enrollment and graduation rates were improving, although not everywhere. Recreation centers were going up. Parks were improved. Everything was the same, and yet it wasn’t. While Gray had proved to be an effective, careful, consensus-seeking council chairman, he was no longer in tune with Fenty. He wasn’t even on his speed dial. The partnership with the council as a whole and with Gray in particular never materialized. Gray was angry about the last fall’s school firings and held hearings on them. Rhee was often at the center of things. With Fenty backing her solidly, she moved decisively to acquire the power to make wholesale personnel decisions, firing principals, closing schools, and in the end firing teachers. She also became a national figure, a poster person for Obama and his Education Department’s reform policies. Her status culminated in a buzzed-about appearance on the cover of Time Magazine with a broom in her hand. For Fenty there were other signs of trouble. There was a controversial contract squabble over parks and recreation projects that went to Fenty’s friends, a controversy that is still under independent investigation. There was a petty fight with the council over baseball tickets. There was an increasing perception that he wasn’t listening to regular folks in the black, poorer wards in town. In January, the Washington Post published a startling and extensive poll it had taken which found that Washingtonians across the city were unhappy with Fenty. It was one of the more politically contradictory polls ever found. A majority liked what he had accomplished but was seriously troubled about his style and the way he got things done. They saw him as arrogant, go-it-alone, unwilling to consult with others, petty. In short, the poll discovered what appeared to be a serious malaise about Fenty’s character and his way of running the city. Plus, a lot of the resentment was coming from the District’s primarily black wards, — 8, 7, 6, 5 and 4 — whose residents felt that Fenty was favoring white residents amid increased gentrification. What the poll discovered was not a passion for any alternative candidate, including Gray, but a resentment of Fenty. It was a big alarm bell. After a big win that appeared to unite the city, there was now a city that was dramatically and sharply divided. When Gray finally announced his campaign — under the banner of “One City” — Fenty didn’t appear to be worried. He had a big advantage in campaign money, he had a record of achievement to run on, and his education centerpiece was flourishing and approved of by most residents. But things just didn’t quite work out that way. The campaign turned into a classic paradox. People took pride in the new rec centers, the lowered homicide rate, the improved schools, and higher test scores. But the jobless mark stayed high among black residents. Gray appeared to be gaining traction and momentum. His low-key manner, his directness, his ability to achieve consensus, and his dismay at the two teacher firings gained him endorsement from labor and the chamber of commerce both. The campaign itself became series of media events, candidate forums, blogger buzz, charges and counter-charges. The campaign overshadowed the two city-wide races for the Democratic council at-large and council chairman seats, the latter for which Gray was now ineligible. The recent poll was a shocker to everyone. It showed that Fenty was trailing among Democratic voters by as much as 13 to 17 percent (among most likely voters), a double-digit number which looms large but is not impossible to overcome. Fenty has come out swinging. He’s alternating from attacking Gray on his record as Human Services Director under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, admitting his failures of “not listening, not being inclusive and promising to change,” to pushing his achievements, especially regarding school reform. It’s hard to count Fenty out. He is, by any measure, a relentless, tireless worker, who loves working the streets and going door to door. It’s how he won his council seat, it’s how he became mayor. But this is a peculiar campaign. The policy issues are fairly clear: the continuance of school reform with or without Michelle Rhee, who’s inserted herself into the campaign; what to do about the looming budget crisis, which rarely seems to get discussed; how to close the gaps between the haves and have nots in the city; how to create jobs and battle the perennially high jobless rates in the poorer wards; how to forge an inclusive (or not) education reform policy; how to build bridges between the executive and the council; how to maintain and create affordable housing; and where to find additional moneys. Those are traditional issues about what and what not to do, about money and spending, schools, jobs, crime, and budget matters. What’s not traditional is the central issue in this campaign, which made Gray a viable candidate. That’s the mayor himself. Nothing seems to excite debate more than the mayor’s style and personality — his governance image, if you will. In a televised debate, he promised to change, to be more inclusive, and to listen more. “If I don’t prevail,” he said, “I’ll have no one to blame but myself.” A new addition this year, early voting has been going on throughout the city for days now, but the final tale will be told on Sept. 14. That’s when we’ll see what the voters have been hearing, and who they want handling the city’s future.
-ART BUS 9/11/10 D.C.’s fall art season kicks off this weekend with a free shuttle service linking three gallery hotbeds. The stops: Logan Circle (14th Street NW), U Street, and the H Street/Atlas District (Florida Avenue NE) feature some of the most fascinating collections you’ll encounter this quarter. The program is sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, which aims to allow D.C. residents access to variety of art shows this fall. Be sure to check out the Adamson Gallery, Project 4 Gallery, and G Fine Art among other aesthetic destinations — all of which are open from around 6:30 - 8:30. You’ll be well on your way to meeting your cultural quota for the fall! SATURDAY’S FARMERS’ MARKET 9/11/10 For all you bluegrass fans, this Saturday’s Farmers’ Market, which runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., will feature the Parklawn Ramblers. Among the featured vendors are the Red Apron Butchery, known for their cured meats, Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, whose salads are as easy on the eyes as they are the stomach, and Spriggs Delight for your fill of fudge. Bike tune-ups are also available. The market is held in the Hardy Middle School parking lot, and as always dogs are welcome! TRAFFIC ADVISORY Starting Monday, September 13, the 14th Street Bridge Rehabilitation Project will be closing the left shoulder of the bridge. This means a new traffic pattern for would-be travelers, where all four lanes deviate right of the construction. The change will be implemented in stages over the weekend, with anyone taking Exit 10C from I-395N being advised to head left prior to the work zone. Make sure to approach the construction zone with caution. The change will be in effect for at least eight weeks. GEORGETOWN INTERIM LIBRARY CLOSING In preparation for the opening of the newly renovated Georgetown Neighborhood Library, October 18, the Georgetown Interim Library plans to close September 25. Among the renovations made were improvements to lighting and the woodwork. There will also be new sections dedicated entirely to children and teens. Nevertheless, the reading terrace with a view of Book Hill Park is sure to be the biggest attraction. The West End Neighborhood Library is a nearby alternative in the meantime, and your old books can be returned or renewed there.
-Mid-Atlantic Red Fruit Festival: 9/24/10 Today marks the launch of the first-ever Mid-Atlantic Red Fruit Festival, hosted by the International Wine & Food Festival. The event will run from 6pm to 8pm, in Woodrow Wilson Plaza, at the International Trade Center and Ronald Reagan Building. What makes the festival so unique is that each year a red fruit will be showcased — this year’s being the tomato. Area farmers, chefs, and home gardeners and cooks have come together to bring you tomato tastings with wine pairings. Best of all, the festival has teamed up with Seeds to Schools, a public drive that gathers and redistributes seeds to regional schools and community gardens seeking to promote life science and nutritional values. Common Good City Farm is an additional partner that serves as an urban farm and education center for the District’s low-income residents. For only $35, foodies can enjoy all the tomato-inspired non-profit food festival has to offer! Prevent Cancer Foundation 5k: 9/25/10 $30 late registration is still available for the Prevent Cancer Foundation 5k (Children under 12 can participate for free.). Just head to the packet pick-up site, located at Georgetown Running Co., between 10am and 7pm today. You can also register via phone at 703-519-2103. Messages received before 5pm today will be returned. The 5k, itself, is set to take place this Saturday, from 8am to 11am, at West Potomac Park. Fitness expert Denise Austin is kicking off the event The Washington Post has labeled D.C.’s “5k best bet,” so you’re sure to have a good time while supporting a noble cause. Smithsonian Media’s 6th Annual Museum Day: 9/25/10 This Saturday, Smithsonian Media is hosting its 6th Annual Museum Day. On this day, museums across the nation provide free admission to those wielding a Museum Day ticket. Among the D.C. museums getting in on the action are the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, National Geographic Museum, and the Newseum. To find more venues and print off your ticket, head to www.microsite.smithsonianmag.com/museumday/. Tickets allow one household member and a guest entry but only into one museum, so choose wisely! 2010 National Book Festival: 9/25/10 The Library of Congress’s 2010 National Book Festival runs from 10am to 5:30pm this Saturday. President Barack and Michelle Obama will serve as the event’s honorary chairs. Additionally, the authors in attendance include Isabel Allende, Katherine Paterson, and Gordon S. Wood. The festival promises something for everyone, with its coterie of authors presenting on an array of genres and subjects. Best of all, it’s free and open to people of all ages. Come be a part of D.C.’s celebration of the joy of reading. A Celebration of History: 9/25/10 A tribute exhibition to late artist James Beacon is being held at Gallerie Henlopen, this Saturday, at 4pm. Over the course of his career, Beacon has chronicled the history of slavery in his paintings. Now, the Silver Springs, MD art community wishes to pay homage to his significant effort. Marlen Bodden will also be present to sign copies of her novel “The Wedding Gift”. Fans of historical thrillers should be pleased.
-What people remembered about that morning was how incredibly blue the sky was — the kind of gorgeous day it was, making you feel grateful how heart-breakingly beautiful it was. We had skies like that this Labor Day weekend, a break from the oppressive bouts of heat. Blue as a baby, a Dutch painting. On the Tuesday that became a simple number — 9/11 — I hadn’t yet made it a habit to turn on my computer first thing after brushing my teeth. Instead, I headed out the door to take a 42 bus downtown near the White House, on my way to a photography exhibition opening at the Corcoran Gallery. I didn’t bring my camera, and I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have a clue. As the bus neared the Farragut stop, you began to see a large number of people on the sidewalks, most of them on their cell phones, which was not yet a common sight. Many of them appeared agitated. More and more people started to pour out of office buildings and the Executive Office Building. At Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House as a backdrop, I walked up to a policeman and asked him what was going on. “Oh, not much,” he said. “Two planes were hijacked and rammed into the World Trade Center in New York. Another one just hit the Pentagon. There’s one that’s supposed to be coming here.” He nodded toward the White House. My first thought was why the hell are we standing here? But I didn’t say anything except maybe “Jesus” or “Oh my God”. I couldn’t say. I decided to stay and see what happened. That was the start 9/11 for me. I saw a group of Christian stockbrokers fall to their knees outside an office building where they were convening and they prayed. I saw people start the long walks home to Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and the Maryland border. I saw people gathered around a television set in the Mayflower Hotel, and I saw the real-time collapse of the second tower. It looked unreal. A nurse who was here for a medical convention said “I’m going home to a different world.” Somewhere in a place called Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a fourth plane had crashed in a field near this small town outside Pittsburgh, after passengers had stormed the cockpit and fought the hijackers. On Thanksgiving two years later, we visited the site: there was a big memorial full of flags and angels there and a huge indentation in a field a distance away. The town was small, and it had a football field. It snowed into the quiet land. I remember the days afterward: the president’s speech, his stand on the rocks, the awful images from New York, the rubble, the many dead, and the pictures of falling bodies. I remember a girl, late at night, sitting on the steps, holding a lit candle. I remember being among a group of people in Adams Morgan, who had gathered to hold candles and sing folk songs from our youth — “We Shall Overcome.” I remember two survivors of the attacks — one from the Pentagon and a blonde office worker from the World Trade Center, who came to the Corcoran where an exhibition of photographs from 9/11 was opening. They told personal stories of their trials and still mourned those lost. The fact that the stories were plain-spoken and true made them seem like incantations. I remember that The Georgetowner ran something like five cover stories continuously after 9/11 on 9/11. The streak did not stop until the death of Beatle George Harrison, which seemed in a strange way oddly celebratory and sad at once. I know this much: wars came and continue, American soldiers continue to serve and die, and we and the rest of the world have an enemy that appears implacable in its devotion to destruction, violence, bombings, and war as a way of showing their hatred of cultures and nations that are different from them. This seems never ending — the carnage and that contrary idea of a holy war. This is the world we live in. They call themselves by many names — Jihadists, Taliban, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas. Here we call them terrorists. There the entire region seems in turmoil — Iraq after us, Afghanistan, Pakistan, flooded and bombed at once. It is a cauldron of suffering. That blue-sky day prevails in my memory. I saw the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria this summer, in which the man playing Jesus — a dentist — wailed at Gethsemane, crying out to God that “you have thrown me into the dust of death.” That’s what we saw that day: the dust of death. It blotted out the perfect blue sky.
The September Democratic primary has come and gone and the Council’s summer recess is over. It’s back to school, back to work, and back to reality...literally! After a heated campaign, we have my colleagues Vince Gray as the Democratic nominee for Mayor and Kwame Brown for Chair. And we have an outgoing Mayor Fenty with three more months on the job. Together we face a tremendous challenge right off the bat – rebalancing the fiscal year 2011 budget, which began October 1st. Last week the independent Chief Financial Officer, Dr. Natwar Gandhi, released the revised revenue estimate for the fall quarter. While I was by no means expecting good news – anecdotal accounts of the economy continue to be pretty bad –the actual news turns out to be worse than I expected. Dr. Gandhi estimates an additional revenue shortfall of about $100 million for FY 2010, and potential spending pressures in the range of an additional $65 - 75 million. And this is just on October 1st! We continue to see weaknesses in several areas: commercial real property values, income taxes – particularly capital gains and sales taxes. In fact, the decline in real property taxes in one year is $236 million – a figure which should take your breath away. With the primary now over, all of this will force us to have our “rendezvous with reality” and refigure the FY 2011 budget within the next month. I have some hope of a higher level of cooperation between the Council and the Mayor in coming up with a consensus plan. I would like to see that plan avoid “one-time” fixes as I believe the continued revenue shortfall is likely to persist for a few years. While income and sales taxes will likely bounce back with the economy, I do not see commercial property coming back for several years, and the next wave of loan refinancing in this area is likely to reveal further weaknesses. So as I have said before, what we face is not a “rainy day,” but rather “climate change” and we have to rethink our government in order to live within our means. This means we cannot keep raiding our accumulated fund balances to pay our operational expenses. We cannot mandate vague and unspecified spending cuts. We cannot raise taxes which discourage investment in the city and hurt our ability to continue to attract new residents and taxpayers to the District. The past 10+ years have seen an unprecedented movement back into DC – and this has had a phenomenal positive effect on our “bottom line” and on our ability to pay for the social safety net we all want. But we need to avoid short-sighted policies which will ultimately kill the golden goose, as it were. We are entering into the third year now of reduced economic circumstances, so clearly one-time fixes are not going to work. We cannot let the various spending pressures gallop out of control, such as the potential $30 million in special education, the $35 million more we won’t be getting from the Feds for Medicaid, or the spending pressures related to our ownership of the United Medical Center. It seems to me the fairest thing is to freeze things across the board: pay grades, step increases, pension contributions, procurement contracts, all of which will result in a rate of zero growth. That way, everyone is making a contribution to our financial stability and we can attempt to avoid the painful process of laying people off. Can we do it? It’s not really a question of “can.” We simply must do it. The next month or so will be a real test of our city’s leadership and whether we will approach the problems facing our city head on, or whether we’ll stick our heads in the sand.
-In my last column, I addressed two challenges (education reform and fiscal responsibility) which will face the next Council and Mayor. This election season we will elect a Mayor, Council Chair, two at large Members of the Council, and four Ward Councilmembers (Wards 1, 3, 5 and 6). The city faces five 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 – and these are my thoughts on the final three: 3. Creating an investment environment. Too many of our neighborhood commercial strips have languished over the past 40 years. Elected officials in town talk a lot about helping small businesses, but I’d point this out -- small businesses pay the same outlandishly high tax rates as big businesses! I believe this has greatly discouraged investment in our neighborhoods. Three years ago, the Chairman and I authored legislation which reduced the commercial property tax rate from $1.85 to $1.65 for the first $3 million of a building’s value, which was quite helpful in our neighborhood commercial areas. But even the $1.65 is far higher than the surrounding jurisdictions – we’ve priced ourselves right out of competition with our neighbors, all while we hemorrhage retail spending across our borders. The business income tax rate at 9.975% is among the highest in the country, and we tax unincorporated businesses which our neighbors do not. If we are really serious about changing the business climate in DC - often ranked among the nation’s worst -- we need to look long and hard at these rates if we are ever to bring more jobs and opportunities to our neighborhoods, and retain the spending power of DC residents right here in the city where it belongs. 4. Public Safety. We have made great strides over the past decade in implementing community policing, utilizing new technologies, and pinpointing resources at data-identified problem areas. We have much to celebrate -- the murder rate is the lowest in 40 years. But we have a ways to go on continuing to lower robberies and theft – and we face particular problems with juvenile crimes and dysfunctionality of the juvenile justice system. These are the next areas we will need to focus on. 5. Self-determination. This area is one in which there can be either incremental or large steps. I believe a two pronged strategy will be needed to obtain statehood for the District, and/or any of the steps along the way. We will need a Mayor and Council that has a good working relationship with the Congress. Statehood ultimately is but a majority vote in the Congress, but there are issues, particularly financial ones, to address along the road to statehood. Smaller steps could be such things as budget and legislative autonomy for the District. Budget autonomy in particular would allow us to conduct a more rational budget process every year rather than the “hurry up and wait” that we suffer now as we wait for the Congress to approve our spending of our own locally-raised funds. I believe we can achieve these things, but like many things, we’ll all have to wait until the dust settles after the election to get back to work on many of the pressing issues facing our city.
The primary election is over! Congratulations to Vince Gray, who will be the Democratic nominee for Mayor, and to Kwame Brown who will be the nominee to Council Chair. As someone who has been down this road before, I greatly appreciate the hard work and dedication to our city that went into those successful campaigns, and I look forward to working with them on what is best for our entire city. I have had good working relationships with both men. I am especially encouraged by Vince Gray’s early outreach, within days after the primary election, to plan town hall meetings in each Ward of the city, in recognition that he did not win every Ward. I think this is a very good gesture in the right direction in fostering a much needed dialogue which will help our city move forward together, and allow all of us to get to know one another better. We have tremendous challenges facing us in both the near and long term – not least of which is the potential continued weakness in the economy, which will have implications for the District’s revenue and budget, as well as an impact on unemployment and demands for social services. It is quite possible the Chief Financial Officer, Dr. Natwar Gandhi, will come to us with more bad news on the revenue side of the balance sheet this month – and it could be one of the first challenges as we return from Council summer recess to redo the FY 2011 before it starts October 1st. Other efforts will continue as well, such as school reform, how to continue to create an investment climate for our economy to keep “growing the pie,” and how to make our public safety agencies work for everyone across the city. I look forward to approaching these issues and more with new vigor as we move forward to make Ward 2 – and the entire city – the best place that it can possibly be.