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Critics question mayor’s plan to run D.C. schools

(Published January 10, 2000)


Staff Writer

A new plan by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to create a five-member appointed school board and superintendent — the fifth school board reform proposal since November -- has come under fire from community activists and council members who question whether a board appointed by the mayor could run the schools any better than the elected school board.

"Since the Board of Education was moved aside in 1996, the school system has been governed by the control board and the board of trustees who, in turn, have appointed two superintendents," said Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At large, a former school board member. "How much better have the schools gotten under the appointed system?"

Larry Gray, legislative chairman of the D.C. Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations, said the power to hire the superintendent is the main duty of the school board.

"If the mayor appoints the superintendent...there’s no point in having a school board," he said.

Gray, who chaired the mayor’s transition team subcommittee on education issues, questioned why the mayor did not follow the subcommittee’s recommendations. Among them, the group advised the mayor to seek an early return of the elected school board’s powers.

Williams, who previously urged the D.C. City Council to slow its fast-track efforts to make drastic changes in school governance, reversed course at a Jan. 5 news conference at which he introduced his proposal.

The mayor’s chief policy adviser, Gregory McCarthy, urged council members at a Nov. 29 public hearing before the education committee to allow time for public discussion of school reform goals so that the best means to educate the District’s children could be devised.

"There’s not a lot more research you can do," the mayor said. "You’ve got to call the question."

Williams noted that responsibility for the public schools currently is divided among the superintendent, the elected school board, the appointed school trustees, the control board, Congress, the mayor and the council.

"Who is responsible and accountable if a school fails?" Williams asked. "Everyone and no one. Putting responsibility and accountability for our schools clearly under the mayor will enable the entire government to work together to ensure our students get the best education possible."

The mayor proposes amending the city’s home rule charter to create a five-member school board appointed by the mayor and to enable the mayor to choose the school superintendent. The home rule charter gives the elected school board the power to appoint the superintendent, but the control board took over that authority in late 1996 and has appointed the past two superintendents.

Under the mayor’s plan, board members would be able to serve up to two four-year terms on the board, would receive no pay but would be reimbursed for expenses. Current school board members are paid $15,000 annually. The proposal would limit the board’s policy-making authority to establishing personnel policies for the superintendent to follow in making hiring decisions, providing guidelines for the superintendent’s decisions about expenditures and setting goals for academic achievement. The board would not have authority to make or approve personnel decisions or to negotiate with unions.

The board would be chosen by a nine-member nominating committee consisting of four parents of current or former D.C. public school students, a D.C. college or university president, a local business leader, a local community leader and a representative selected with the advice of teachers’ union. Committee members would serve up to two four-year terms.

The mayor’s proposal requires approval by D.C. voters before it could become law. Williams said he is aiming to have the proposal placed on the ballot in May. His plan also contains a provision for D.C. residents to decide whether to maintain the appointed board and superintendent in a May 2004 referendum.

At-large Councilmen Harold Brazil and David Catania said they support having the mayor appoint the superintendent but they want to retain the elected school board. Longtime education activist Mary Levy and Councilmen Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, and Phil Mendelson, D-At large, also called for reform and said the current system does not work.

The reform effort, Graham said, is "not about sentimental issues of home rule or political subdivision," said Graham, who did not acknowledge supporting a specific number of board members or how they should be chosen. "My guiding principle is how we can get better education for our children so we can get better achievement for the future."

Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, who introduced legislation Nov. 23 calling for a five-member mayorally appointed school board, said the council will keep trying to compromise on a single plan.

"A lot will depend on what the mayor does," she said.

Patterson said her support for an appointed school board is based on calls and letters from her constituents, as well as ideas advanced by the advocacy group D.C. Agenda.

Councilman Kevin Chavous, D-Ward 7, who chairs the council’s education committee, predicted that the council would not pass legislation mandating an appointed board.

"To me it isn’t warranted," Chavous said. "Even the studies show that it doesn’t make a difference when it’s all said and done."

Councilwoman Sandra C. Allen, D-Ward 8, called the mayor’s plan undemocratic.

"If we are going to let the mayor appoint the school board, we may as well let the mayor appoint the council," she said.

Don Reeves, Ward 3’s school board member, criticized the mayor and the council for not consulting the Board of Education about any of their school governance proposals.

"None of those plans — from the city council to the mayor — have anything to do with education," Reeves charged.

The Rev. Robert Childs, newly elected board president and at-large member, said the board plans to meet with the mayor Jan. 20 to discuss the reform proposals. Childs said he declined the mayor’s invitation to participate in the news conference because he disagrees with Williams’ proposal.

The other proposals for school reform are a bill by Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose to create a seven-member board with three mayorally appointed members and four elected members representing two wards each; a bill by Councilman Kevin Chavous, D-Ward 7, to create a nine-member board selected in a hybrid process of ward primaries with eventual citywide election; and a proposal by Councilman Vincent Orange, D-Ward 5, to maintain the 11-member board while requiring its president to be chosen in a citywide election.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator