[from November 2005 issue]


We fear that a fast-developing, nasty political season is soon to overwhelm our city to the point of bringing a halt to any rational debate on important policy issues. All one has to do is take a look at the Washington Post’s “District Notebook” column in the November 10th District Weekly section. No doubt about it, members of our city council -- heretofore having for the most part comported themselves with dignity and a minimum of political grandstanding (a certain amount is always ok in a democracy, of course) now appear headed for meltdown.

This cannot be good for us, nor for them. We need our council members to focus on important issues that require solution.

Such as the school system’s slum-like physical plant and how true remediation will be carried out -- and not just about how the funds will be raised but how they will be expended and who or what body will make sure this won’t turn out to be another typical case of DC pouring good money after bad down a rat hole and everyone passing the buck.

We are pleased that Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who chairs the education committee, decided to postpone having her committee vote on her proposed $1 billion “solution” so as to give the business community an opportunity to make their voice heard. After all, she proposes that there should be hefty tax increases levied there.

At first blush, we considered that maybe that’s where the burden should be, since it is the business community that should be, as employers, most concerned about ensuring that the products of the DC schools come to them with decent educations, something which is hard to ensure when the students in this school system are daily subjected to being exposed to substandard physical plant conditions. In fact, if many of these school buildings were inhabited by rent control tenants rather than students and teachers, we have no doubt the politicians would be demanding that DCRA move to condemn those very structures. Certainly, as many of them now are, they are in no way conducive to encouraging a positive attitude or enthusiasm about going to school.

So, then, why shouldn’t the business community spring for the extra tax outlays? Well, as we thought about it, we realized that higher commercial taxes would actually be passed right on back to the residents, including the lower income families that have no choice but to send their kids to those rotten school buildings every morning. These pass-throughs will come back to all of us in a variety of ways through higher prices for food, clothing, restaurant meals, services, you name it. After all, why should we not expect that large and small business operators would not seek to maintain their incomes by recovering additional costs of doing business imposed on them?

And, we need to keep in mind that it’s not just the big, “evil” corporations that will find it necessary to do this. Every small shop keeper and “mom and pop” neighborhood business will be affected because when costs go up for their landlords, those get passed along to them also. So, even if they won’t be taxed directly, we can be sure they will feel the effects and then so will we all.

But, returning to the larger policy issue, if we could be 100 percent convinced that this proposed vast sum of money would in fact be effectively used and that in just maybe two or three years we would actually be able to step into fully retrofitted older school buildings we might be more inclined to go along with the plan. After all, so many of these buildings are architecturally well worth preserving and have basically sound “bones” as they say in the building biz (keep in mind that in 19th century they really built buildings to last). There is no reason why school buildings cannot be treated with the same imaginative reconstruction as is so often done with dilapidated old commercial structures that are acquired for new purposes.

Trouble is, we simply have lost confidence in our city government with regard to the quality and abilities of so many of the persons who get assigned to carry out complex management tasks. There have been so many false starts and totally fouled up projects over the years that it is just not believable any more that the job can be done. Don’t get us wrong, this doesn’t mean we are in favor of turning the job over to the Army Corp of Engineers. We’re learning about the mess they made of things over the years in New Orleans; we also remember when the Control Board brought in that ex-army general to take over school reconstruction -- that was a disaster too!

At this point, we are not sure what the true solution should be, but that is why it is so important that the politicians re-focus on being policy-makers and sensible legislators at this critical time and not allow their political ambitions divert them from their main mission, which is to serve us and to uphold the high standards of unselfish public service.