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Officials ponder cost, turnout on schools issue

(Published March 27, 2000)


Staff Writer

City officials are nearing a decision to hold a costly special election, probably in June, at which voters will be asked to decide whether to change the D.C. Board of Educationís composition and authority under the Home Rule Charter.

The federally appointed financial control board has approved the expenditure of the $350,000 to $400,000 in unbudgeted costs that D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics officials say will be incurred if a citywide special election is held.

But D.C. City Council members at press time had yet to approve a measure directing elections officials to put a proposed charter change on the ballot. A 60-day legal notice is required to hold a special election.

Council members are faced with July 7 being the first day candidates may begin collecting signatures to seek election this fall to the current 11-member school board. If voters approve the proposed referendum, the six school board positions up for election in November would no longer exist.

The council missed the deadline for getting a referendum on the ballot for the May 2 presidential primary election. The other two citywide elections are scheduled for Sept. 12 and Nov. 7.

Council aides said weeks of closed-door negotiations have been held between the council, the control board and Mayor Anthony A. Williams since the council agreed in mid-February on a "hybrid" partially elected, partially appointed school board structure.

Elected officials have been reluctant to discuss the hotly debated issues in public but have focused on not only the high cost of requiring a fourth citywide election this year, but also on what one aide called the "dismal turnout" by D.C. voters at all previous special elections.

Elections officials said the two most recent citywide special elections held ó both in 1997, one to fill the council chairmanís seat and the other to fill an at-large council vacancy Ė drew only 5.5 and 7.5 percent of the cityís registered voters to the polls. The highest voter turnout for a D.C. special election Ė 27 percent Ė occurred in a single-ward election to fill a Ward 6 council vacancy.

"If you get a 5 to 7 percent turnout on an issue of this magnitude, politicians donít like that," said Willie Lynch, chief of staff to Ward 7 Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, who chairs the councilís education committee. Lynch said some council members are worried about repercussions from voters if so much money is spent on an election that ends up drawing only a handful of voters to decide such an important issue related to the future direction of D.C. Public Schools.

But control board Vice Chairman Constance Newman, who has spent much of the past two years working with D.C. Public Schools officials, said the importance of fixing the problems in the cityís schools justifies the cost of a special election.

"If we donít pay for anything else, we should pay for that," she said. "Would I have preferred that it wouldíve been done in time that we wouldnít need a special election? Yes, but it didnít get done in time.

"If the citizens are not prepared to invest that much in deciding how they want their school system run, theyíre not prepared to invest in this city, because itís all about what we do with the education system. I really do believe that, so I think we find that (money) from somewhere."

City council members and the mayor have proposed at least half a dozen possible reconfigurations of the D.C. Board of Education since January. After originally voting to put two competing charter change options on the ballot simultaneously Ė one an appointed board, which the mayor proposed, and the other an elected board ó the council on Feb. 17 changed its mind and approved 7-6 a referendum to create a combination appointed-elected school board.

Such a "hybrid" school board has rarely been tried anywhere in the country. And while council members referred to the proposal as a "compromise," most acknowledged on the day they voted that a hybrid school board is not their personal preference for how to govern the cityís public schools.

Newman said she personally prefers a school board with all members elected at-large, rather than as ward representatives Ė a proposal that was never on the table in councilís deliberations.

"But Iím a realist," Newman said. "I know politicians are not going to recommend something that becomes a threat to themselves."

She said she believes the hybrid proposal, which combines the cityís eight wards into four representative districts, is a better approach to governing the schools than the current school board structure.

"I donít really think the problem has to do with the personalities on the school board," Newman said. "I think the structure is flawed when you build a school board around individual wards, where people believe that it is their responsibility to manage the school system in their ward."

Newman said, despite her personal reservations about the current school boardís structure, she thinks the control board and the elected school board "will be fine" working together if the voters reject the proposed change.

"This isnít about them," she said. "I just donít know that the structure works and itís almost unfair to expect that they can work, given the structure."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator