Fenty Faces Frustrated Parents at Stoddert Elementary
Since becoming mayor, Adrian M. Fenty has made it a regular part of his schedule to attend community meetings across the city. It's a way to keep his promise to an electorate that he won't just come around every four years when he's looking for votes. And it's a way to try to head off budding grumbling about his leadership before it turns into full bore protests.
More than halfway through his four-year term, Fenty (D) has continued to make the rounds, with good reason. As with all mayors, residents have begun to grow impatient for him to live up to the promises he has made. Take last night, for example, when the mayor visited Stoddert Elementary in Glover Park, where parents were frustrated by the progress -- or lack of it -- on a massive renovation project Fenty (D) had said last fall would be put on the fast track.
The parents were angry because for several months they had been meeting every other Thursday for three hours to discuss the plans with the architects and representatives from the D.C. Public Schools' modernization office for the 52,000-square foot project, which includes a new gym, roof and cafeteria. Then, out of the blue, the meetings were canceled by the school system's project manager, said Wendy Sefsaf, a parent leader.
When Fenty arrived last night with facilities chief Allen Y. Lew and several of Lew's deputies in tow, Sefsaf and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Cohen gave them an earful on behalf of the 40 parents in the room.
"This project came to a stop," Sefsaf said. "The architects were told to stop work because the master facilities plan wasn't approved by the council yet and, because of that, the architects' contract hadn't been approved. ..... Can you explain this interruption and, if we can't move forward, why we started this process if the master facilities plan hasn't been passed?"
Fenty has never favored long, nuanced explanations, but rather prefers short declarative sentences.
"We're going to break ground June 15," he said, sticking to the date the parents had been promised. "I don't know all the things that you were told. But I'm in charge of the executive branch and we will be breaking ground June 15. We'll have all the necessary meetings between now and then. I apologize if there was any miscommunication."
But Cohen was skeptical. How, he wondered, could Fenty be so sure the project would move forward if the parents' School Improvement Team has not signed off on the final project designs?
"I hear what you're saying that as the executive branch, you're going to make it happen, but we're not seeing the details on the ground to make it happen," he told Fenty.
"Again, I apologize if there was miscommunication," Fenty repeated. "I can tell you with certainty that we're going to break ground June 15. If we need 30 meetings between now and June 15, or if we need 10 meetings, we're going to make it happen. I'm here to make sure it goes smoothly. The community is in charge of how the community makes decisions. I think we're all on the same page. Let's have the regular meetings proceed."
"Yeah," Lew began, "if we need the Thursday meetings ....."
"Let's have them," Fenty interrupted.
Lew's deputies, which included the project manager and communications director Tony Robinson, remained quiet, but they looked uncomfortable as Cohen pressed Fenty on why Lew and his staff did not respond to recent emails from him.
Fenty said: "I called the director and checked the date and I emailed you back."
Lew added: "What was I supposed to do? He's the mayor. Was I supposed to write back that I agreed, as if the mayor's response was inadequate?"
Cohen pressed on. "I get the sense, Mr. Mayor, that you're sounding like Donald Rumsfeld saying everything is going great, but the commanders under you are saying there aren't enough troops."
"I don't know how the Department of Defense works," Fenty replied, "but I know that if you let the troops run government, you'll never get anything built. You need someone to say, 'This is when we need to break ground.'"
Eventually, the parents appeared satisfied, or at least willing to give the mayor's team a chance to redeem themselves. Lew assigned Robinson as a community liaison to get the biweekly meetings restarted and improve communication between the parents and facilities office. The parents applauded Fenty and Lew twice, including after D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) testified that Lew usually meets his deadlines. The Stoddert project is scheduled to be completed by Sept. 2010.
"There's some distrust of this government because this project has taken way too long," Fenty said near the conclusion of the meeting. "That's why I don't mind, why I welcome, the chance to build up trust."
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