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Posted at 9:42 AM ET, 03/ 2/2011

DeMorning DeBonis: March 2, 2011

By Mike DeBonis

TODAY IS MARCH 2, 2011 -- DAY 59 OF THE GRAY ADMINISTRATION

Here's the number: $322 million. That is the bona fide, Nat Gandhi-certified amount of the District of Columbia's fiscal 2010 budget gap. Expect to hear that number several times a day between now and when the budget finally is put to bed in June. (I am actually going to set up a shortcut on my computer so I can hit control-G and have "$322 million budget gap" appear in my copy.) Now $322 million is somewhat smaller than the doom-and-gloom figures exceeding $600 million that some mayoral officials were privately selling in recent months. But thanks to robust commercial property tax collections, what was foreseen as an epic challenge is a less dramatic affair. As Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) put it yesterday: "It certainly makes the situation better, but we don't want to overstate the optimism here. ... The good news is we got more money, but we still have enormous problems." The Post's Bill Turque notes that this is good news for the D.C. Public Schools, which were and still are set for budget cuts. But the influx means the cuts stand to be much less draconian. More from WTTG-TV and Examiner.

AFTER THE JUMP -- Sessoms explains his travel spending; politicos react -- DCPS enrollment up for first time since 1969 -- Biddle aims to charge non-resident city employees -- Kwame Brown wants to "win back the trust" of constituents -- Was Gray dissed by House committee?

*** MAIN COURSE ***

SESSOMS SPENDING -- WTTG-TV's Tisha Thompson follows up on her big scoop on UDC President Allen Sessoms' travel spending, reporting that "Sessoms jumped into his Lincoln Navigator and refused to answer questions" Tuesday. And she gathers city hall reactions: Tommy Wells tells her the situation "looks really irresponsible" -- especially the fact that the expenses were not well documented. Michael Brown says he's "troubled" that Sessoms "may be living this lavish lifestyle." Vincent Gray mostly demurred at his news conference, saying he wanted more information from the university board. Kwame Brown, meanwhile, sent a letter to Sessoms and UDC board chairman Joseph Askew saying he was "troubled" by the disclosures. Sessoms is set to appear before Brown for his yearly oversight hearing next Tuesday. Sessoms did in fact speak to the Post's Daniel de Vise, defending the expenses, saying "all of the trips were for university business" and that "he buys comparatively pricey refundable tickets because his schedule often changes at the last minute and that he favors first class because of leg problems." Said Sessoms: "It's all receipted, all above-board," adding that he has requested an internal audit of the expenses, which will be delivered to the UDC board. Askew said in a statement he "certainly has an interest" in the expenses but that "prior to passing any judgment on the President's travel, it is only prudent and fair that it look further into the expenses." to determine their legitimacy. Said UDC spokesman Alan Etter, "This characterization that he's traipsing the globe with caviar and champagne is ... false, and it's silly." WTTG reporter Bob Barnard adds that the travel revelations have renewed calls for Sessoms' ouster from students who were critical of his move to raise tuition. And the spending issue also gives Jonetta Rose Barras an opportunity to rail against UDC mismanagement, which has long been a pet issue of hers. She adds to the mix in her Examiner column, writing that the UDC board has "set aside as much as $3 million for 'one-time merit based compensation' in lieu of salary increases," even as it prepared to ask the D.C. Council for more operating money. WTOP also reports.

DCPS ENROLLMENT UP -- More good DCPS-related news: Audited enrollment figures are in, and the city's school system has managed its "first enrollment growth since 1969," Turque reports at D.C. Schools Insider. "There are 45,630 students enrolled in D.C.'s 123 public schools, a 2-percent gain over the 44,718 registered in last year's audit. The rise was attributable primarily to sizeable increases in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment, which offset continuing losses in grades one through three, middle and high school. It's the first time that DCPS has joined the charter sector in reporting enrollment gains. The city's 52 public charter schools continued their annual expansion, although at a somewhat slower pace than past years. The charter student population rose 5.8 percent to 29,356. It means that 39 percent of the city's public school population now attend charters." Examiner's Lisa Gartner quotes Gray: "The day will come when this [school system] has been substantially and significantly turned around. ... Young people are moving into the city and staying in the city and clearly enrolling in our public schools."

NEW AND EXCITING -- Yesterday's council legislative meeting was short, but there were a couple notable introductions: Jack Evans went through with his bill mandating the return of Patrick Pope as principal at Hardy Middle School in Georgetown, with Michael Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. co-sponsoring. Bill Turque sets the proper context at D.C. Schools Insider: "Perhaps [Evans], after hearing more than a year's worth of protests about [Pope]'s reassignment from Hardy Middle School, just wanted to be able to tell folks he tried. Or maybe he actually does believe, as he said at Monday night's ANC 2E meeting, that this is 'an issue that continues to overshadow everything.' Whatever Evans is thinking, don't look for the "Continued Success of Rose L. Hardy Middle School Resolution of 2011" to become District law anytime soon." Here's what Gray had to say about the bill: "I think we have a chancellor who appoints principals." Also: Sekou Biddle introduced an interesting proposal that would require city employees who don't live in the city to "return" four percent of their salaries "to recoup costs for services that have not been funded by non-resident government workers, and give new city workers an incentive to live in the District," per a Biddle release. And, no: "The payment is not a tax." New York City has a similar provision, apparently. Incidentally: Biddle is set to get the endorsement of the SEIU local representing school security guards today.

KWAME WANTS YOUR TRUST BACK -- After refusing to directly answer questions Monday about Wells' fleet report, Kwame Brown did speak to reporters yesterday after the council legislative meeting. He told the Post's Tim Craig that "he's going to work to 'win back the trust' of city residents angered or troubled by his decision to request a "fully loaded" Lincoln Navigator that would have cost taxpayers $2,000 a month. ... Brown said he's committed to turning the discussion back to the council's efforts to create jobs and balance the budget. ... 'We are going to focus on the people's business,' Brown said. He later added, 'You've got to go back and win the trust of all the people who are disappointed and I am going to do that everyday.'" The immediate political question: "Without recent public polling to gauge the impact of the SUV controversy, it's too early to tell if there will be long-term political consequences for Brown, widely considered a potential future mayoral candidate. But Brown and [Biddle] quickly will have to decide what role, if any, Brown will play in the April 26 special election for an at-large seat on the council." The Examiner's Freeman Klopott asked Brown what he would have done differently about the Navigator if he had to do it over again: ""If I could go back and do it now? I would make sure that [Department of Public Works Director] Bill Howland returned the the first [Navigator] like I asked him to, and then I would go back to my own truck."

CONGRESSIONAL DISS? -- So Gray did not in fact appear at Tuesday's House oversight subcommittee hearing on the potential revival of the D.C. voucher program. That's because, Eleanor Holmes Norton explained from the committee dais, committee staff refused to make small adjustments to the hearing to accommodate Hizzoner's schedule. Ben Pershing reports at D.C. Wire that the snub prompted Norton to "[rip] into her Republican colleagues ... accusing them of trying to 'humiliate' Mayor Vincent C. Gray and 'disrespect his office.' ... 'In 20 years of service in the Congress I have never seen any highly placed public official treated so shabbily,' Norton said, adding: 'It was offensive, petty and beneath the dignity of Congress.' ... She said Gray had asked if the hearing could begin a bit earlier than it's scheduled 9:30 a.m. start time, and was denied. She said Gray then asked if he could be the first witness to testify, so he could leave right away afterwards. Norton said Gray was told he could serve on the first panel -- which also included parents and students participating in the scholarship program -- but wouldn't necessarily get to testify first. Norton said that congressional panels typically did not treat high-ranking witnesses that way, nor was it common to ask elected officials to testify on a panel with their constituents." Norton says subcommittee chair Trey Gowdy wasn't the bad guy, instead blaming an Oversight Committee staffer. Perhaps Darrell Issa can launch an investigation?

BIDDLE BACKFIRE? -- Martin Austermuhle writes at DCist on the political ramifications of Sekou Biddle's petition challenges: "Challenges are part and parcel of the democratic process, but Biddle's decision to pursue them against three candidates who have less than half the money his campaign does set off a debate as to the wisdom of the move. By having his campaign treasurer file the challenges, Biddle loses the ability to claim any distance or plausible deniability. Moreover, if [Bryan Weaver] and [Jacque Patterson] get knocked off the ballot, [Patrick Mara] may well stand to pick up their core supporters -- further fueling a candidacy that has some potential to defeat Biddle."

FAIR ENOUGH -- Good point from the Economist: "It could be said that both [Michelle Rhee] and [Scott Walker] dealt with large problems by arrogantly pushing over-the-top, sub-optimal solutions. But their excessive actions were useful in forcing unions to abandon their rigid positions and play a more constructive role in the proceedings."

*** SMALL PLATES ***

Marion Barry gets his Jag booted, over $710 in parking tickets (TBD/WJLA-TV, WTTG-TV, AP, DCist, DC Urban Moms, Examiner, WRC-TV)

Nanny alert: Mary Cheh bill would restrict junk food from city government vending machines (DCist, WRC-TV)

More coverage of fleet oversight bill (WTTG-TV, WRC-TV)

Vince and Kwame's good-cop/bad-cop act on resident hiring (Housing Complex)

Notary wedding bill introduced, "seen aiding gays" -- Barry, Yvette Alexander oppose (WaTimes)

Wells pushes DDOT to make "performance parking" perform (GGW)

Antwan Holcomb, 21, convicted in 2009 killing of gay man (Post)

Ingmar Guandique appeals (McClatchy)

Accused cab conspirator Yitbarek Syume set to plead guilty today (WRC-TV)

Woman killed in Third Street Tunnel after she crashes into back of DPW pickup (WUSA-TV)

Robert L. Wilkins joins the federal bench (Crime Scene)

Harry Thomas details his feelings on Wal-Mart (RIA Insider)

Capitol Hill residents list what they don't like about Hine redevelopment project (EMMCA)

New push to have food trucks pay sales tax (Current via G'town Dish)

Guardian Angels say they will patrol Metro (Dr. Gridlock)

DCRA's requirement for gendered bathrooms seems to be at odds with Human Rights Act (TBD/Amanda Hess)

More questioning of MWAA board practices (WAMU-FM)

Robert Bobb staying in Detroit through June 30 (Detroit Free Press)

"Big data" is important, D.C. Water's George Hawkins tells IBM conference (Computing)

Where the bikers are (GGW)

If the "I Miss Fenty" bumper stickers aren't working for you, how 'bout a keychain or coffee mug? "Miss Rhee Yet?" inscription also available. (The Buzz, Zazzle)


*** ON THE MENU ***

Gray appears at prayer breakfast, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, 8:30 a.m.; Read Across America Day kick-off, LoC Jefferson Building, 10:15 a.m.; at City Title luncheon, 1 p.m. at Verizon Center -- council oversight hearings on Public Charter School Board and OPEFM, 10 a.m. in JAWB 500; OCTO, BOEE and OCF, 10 a.m. in JAWB 412 -- Mary Cheh holds hearing on altering city primary election date, 2 p.m. in JAWB 412

By Mike DeBonis  | March 2, 2011; 9:42 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Mike, The District  
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Next: D.C. property assessments rise modestly for 2012

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