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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Panel Makes Power Grab For D.C. Government

WASHINGTON -- In a sign of deepening woes for Washington's troubled municipal government, a federal panel has seized control of the city's public school system and is eyeing other parts of the nominally independent government.

A federal board this month moved to turn ailing city schools around with a bold step: It fired the public school chief, replaced him with a retired army lieutenant general, and stripped the school board, which oversees local public education, of its power.

And news reports said the five-member panel appointed by Congress 18 months ago to monitor the city's out-of-control spending is just getting started.

The District of Columbia financial control board is also reviewing the city police department and the debt-ridden University of the District of Columbia with an eye toward reducing waste and ending the persistent deficits that are generally paid by Congress.

Critics of the financial control board point to its limited success since its arrival. The city remains in the red, expecting to overshoot its $5 billion 1997 budget by some $85 million.

Unlike most American cities, where a poorer inner city is subsidized by a wealthier surrounding area, Washington's suburbs belong to the states of Maryland and Virginia.

That means people who work in Washington pay income taxes elsewhere, a source of irritation to city officials. The city, which is not part of any state and lacks full representation in Congress, cannot impose taxes without federal government approval.

Residents complain that potholes that pock the city streets, the uncollected garbage and the burned-out street and traffic lights are the most visible and persuasive evidence that the nation's capital remains in trouble.

While school scores are below national averages, the violence rate is high, and services ranging from fire and police to public works are overstretched.

Critics say the federal panel is trampling on the city's political independence, enshrined in a "home rule" law from the 1970s that gave the capital district limited autonomy, subject to congressional budget approval.

The panel, local activist Lawrence Guyot told The Washington Post, is a tool of conservatives in Congress to "humiliate, abuse and co-opt local government."

Not so, said the panel's chairman, Arthur Brimmer.

The takeover "is an example of the way I believe we should be spending our time -- not fiddling around with minutiae and details here and there, but dealing with the central issues. And so we moved boldly into this episode, and we did it consciously," he said.

Several district schools delayed opening in September for the normal academic year after officials deemed the deteriorating buildings unfit and ordered repairs.

Washington Mayor Marion Barry was off on a 12-day trade mission to China and South Korea when the panel took over the schools. His absence at a critical moment has renewed debate over whether his office has become irrelevant under the control board.

"I have as much power in terms of day-to-day operations of the city as I always have," Barry said. Delaying the trip "wouldn't have made one bit of difference."

Barry also said he is not concerned about the panel's decision to investigate the police department. Its chief, Larry Soulsby, is under fire for mishandling an internal dispute and for allowing Barry to meddle in departmental business.

The University of the District of Columbia, meanwhile, has attracted the panel's attention for having a $16 million budget gap.