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Parents pan council plan for schools

(Published January 24, 2000)

By EMORY JULIAN MILLS

Staff Writer

Education reform advocates on both sides of the debate over an appointed or elected D.C. Board of Education say they fear the city councilís current proposal may simply lead to more politics in the schools rather than true reform.

Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, predicted that the proposal would pave the way for the council to take over the school system if the council members were able to legislate the boardís roles and responsibilities.

She said the proposal, approved on first reading by the council Jan. 18, "gives the council greater opportunity to do the meddling in schools that we have been trying to prevent the board from doing."

She noted that while Parents United recently refused to take a position on any of the proposals until the council committed to fully funding the schools, the groupís board of directors is divided over whether the school board should be appointed or elected as well as the possibility of fully re-empowering the board.

Longtime education activist Mary Levy, a supporter of an appointed board, described the legislation as "a terrible idea" because it would provide for the councilís takeover of the school system.

"One elected board running another doesnít make any sense to me," Levy said.

"In terms of meddling, theyíre pros." she said of the council. "They donít know what theyíre doing. They have too much on their plates."

Levy noted that unlike the majority of school districts nationwide, the cityís elected school board lacks taxing authority. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, some of those school districts whose elected boards have taxing authority and school enrollments similar to Washingtonís include Fort Worth, Denver, Miami and Long Beach, Calif.

Larry Gray, legislative chairman for the D.C. Congress of Parent and Teacher Associations and a supporter of an elected board, called the legislation "a bad approach to school governance."

"It splits the power structure of schools so the superintendent does not have clear accountability," Gray said.

Gray questioned whether the proposals offered by either Mayor Anthony A. Williams or the council amounted to anything other than "window dressing" and called on the council to provide dedicated funds to schools for two consecutive years.

"One instituted the mayor as the master of the Board of Education," said Gray. "The other instituted the council as the master of the Board of Education. I donít think this is a question about accountability as it is a question of leadership."

Elizabeth Lisboa, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, expressed disappointment with the defeat of the mayorís bill and the passage of the councilís. Lisboa, who endorsed Williamsí proposal for an appointed board, described the councilís bill as "well intended" but "confusing" and said the mayor should be held accountable for running the school system.

At-large school board member Gail Dixon described the council vote as "a step toward sanity" but said running a school system is beyond the councilís purview.

"Oversight over something as important as the education of any child should not be the political football being played out," Dixon said. "I just really believe that we have a much more focused vantage point than do people who are following a party line."

D.C. Board of Education members currently are chosen in nonpartisan elections.

Dixon also criticized the mayor for proposing an appointed board.

"Weíre seeing the business communityís concerns outweigh the childrenís concerns," Dixon said. "We still have teachers who are not being paid. Now youíre telling us you can do a better job? I donít think so!"

The council on Jan. 18 voted 10-2 against Mayor Anthony A. Williamsí proposal to create a five-member, appointed board and voted 7-5 in favor of the education committee of the councilís bills to retain the elected board while shrinking it from 11 to seven members.

Council members Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, and Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, voted for the mayorís proposal. Evans and Patterson were joined by council members Sandra C. Allen, D-Ward 8, Vincent B. Orange Sr. and Harold Brazil, D-At large, in voting against the proposal that the council approved.

The councilís legislation would change the home rule charter to create "school districts" composed of two wards and have one board member represent each district. The other three members, including the board president, would be chosen in citywide elections. The legislation would also change the home rule charter to empower the council to legislate the boardís roles and responsibilities and provide for the board and the school superintendent to sign a memorandum of understanding delineating their responsibilities and stagger board membersí elections.

D.C. voters would be required to approve any change in the home rule charter before it could take effect.

The legislation would also permit the mayor to appoint or remove the superintendent with the Board of Educationís approval. The board would be able to establish personnel guidelines for hiring principals and other personnel but would be banned from collective bargaining or making personnel decisions.

Williamsí proposal would have created an appointed superintendent and an unpaid, five-member mayorally appointed school board that would serve for four-year terms. Current school board members earn $15,000 annually.

"I am disappointed that the council...sidestepped the fundamental issue: accountability," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "I urge the council to move swiftly to clarify their vision of how our schools should be governed and how that system will work as a practical matter. Anything short of full and clear accountability is a wasted opportunity and a disservice to our children," said Williams.

He vowed to continue working with the council to achieve "meaningful reform and real accountability."

Ward 4 school board member Dwight Singleton commended the city council for its vote in favor of retaining a democratically elected board.

But he said the board should maintain its policy-making authority and called for further discussion of legislation to collapse the cityís eight wards into four school districts.

"I can say that people really want to have a ward representative to go to where they could voice their concerns," he said.

Mary Filardo, founder and executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, said she is glad the mayorís proposal was defeated, but she is unhappy with the passage of the councilís proposal.

"We donít need him to run the schools," Filardo said. "We need him to run the cityÖ.(and) I think (the board) is fine at 11" members.

Filardo noted that if the mayor were allowed to appoint the superintendent, the mayor, the council and the school board might have disagreements that could impede policy implementation. She also recommended creation of a special state agency separate from the school board that would handle enrollment audits, capital procurement and allocating professional staff to handle the school boardís administrative work.

Councilman David Catania, R-At large, said he is "very pleased" with the mayorís participation in the school governance debate but questioned his commitment to reform.

"I would have preferred that the mayor have met with the school board at least once during his first year in office," said Catania, who voted in favor of the councilís proposal and against the mayorís. "It would have given me greater confidence that his decision to walk away from an elected board was truly informed."

Catania noted that while he favors decentralizing authority over schools, he and other council members are examining other school governance models nationwide and would continue meeting to come up with a proposal that a majority of the council supports. He noted that the council remains divided over the structure and function of the school board.

John Abbot, an aide to Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-at large, a former school board member who favors an elected board, said that Schwartz supported the council-approved proposal even though she was out of town when the council voted on Jan. 18. He said she would provide her input on the proposal when the council holds its final vote on Feb. 1.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator