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JUNE 27 VOTE SET

Elections board chief suggests legal action

(Published May 8, 2000)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

D.C. voters are scheduled to go to the polls June 27 to decide whether to replace the current 11-member elected school board with a nine-member board that is partially elected and partially appointed by the mayor.

But moments before the Board of Elections and Ethics voted unanimously May 2 to hold the special election, which officials said will cost city taxpayers $370,000, the boardís chairman suggested that objectors take their complaints to D.C. Superior Court.

During a brief hearing on a challenge filed by Michigan Park Citizens Association President Dino Drudi, elections board Chairman Benjamin F. Wilson seemed to agree with Drudiís claim that D.C. City Council violated the law with the procedure it used to approve the proposed home rule charter change. But Wilson and his board colleagues, Stephen G. Callas and Lenora Cole Alexander, dismissed Drudiís challenge for what they said was their lack of jurisdiction to decide whether city council had followed the law.

"If someone chooses to take this challenge to a different levelÖ.If you or someone chooses to challenge this, will a court see it that way?" Wilson asked rhetorically during the hearing. In comments after the meeting, attorney Wilson said the board wanted to "make sure people are aware of their options" and said a court challenge could "push the timetable back" on the special election.

Drudiís challenge claimed that city council violated the procedure for amending the home rule charter because the council failed to publicly read the proposed amendment "twice in substantially the same form" before approving it.

"Although the Council read Bill 13-469, the School Governance Charter Amendment Act of 2000, three times, no version of the bill approved at any reading was in substantially the same form as one approved at any other reading," Drudiís challenge said.

Under questioning by board chairman Wilson, Charlotte Brookins-Hudson, the councilís general counsel who defended the council action in a six-page letter and in person at the boardís hearing, insisted repeatedly that "the subject matter (of all the bill versions) was indeed the same Ė the subject matter has always been reducing the number of members on the school board."

Wilson, at one point during his questioning, observed that "it does appear to be the case that each one of those (council) proposals is different." Later, he began speculating about what a court might say.

During the unusual late-night and poorly publicized special meeting on May 2, the elections board decided unanimously to declare an emergency that allowed an immediate change in city regulations to permit the school board question to be placed on a special election ballot. Under the previous rules, the board would have been required to place the proposed change in the cityís home rule charter on the ballot at the next regularly scheduled citywide election on Sept. 12.

While the Sept. 12 primary election is expected to draw the largest voter turnout of this yearís elections, city officials have insisted that a special election be held on the school board question to resolve the issue before candidates begin circulating petitions July 7 to run for positions on the elected school board that would be eliminated if voters approve the charter change.

Even with the vote scheduled for a special election, officials say they may need to change the July 7 date for petitions to be available for school board candidates, because the elections board cannot legally certify the June 27 election results before July 7, 10 days after the election. If voters approve the change to the home rule charter, the change must be transmitted by the elections board to the city council chairman and from there on to Congress. The Districtís home rule charter is actually an act of Congress, which must be formally changed by the federal legislature before the process for selecting the school board can be changed.

Under the current elected school board structure, six of the 11 board membersí seats would be up for election in a nonpartisan Nov. 7 election.

The charter change proposed by the city council and mayor would create what is being called a "hybrid" nine-member school board of both appointed and elected members that would exist for only four years before being reevaluated. Under the plan, the mayor would appoint and the council would confirm four board members, voters citywide would elect the school board president and the cityís eight wards would be combined into four new "school districts" to each be represented by an elected board member.

The charter amendment would specifically empower the school board to hire, evaluate and fire the superintendent of D.C. Public Schools; establish personnel policies for hiring principals; and approve an annual budget for the schools. It also would allow the city council to create a state education agency to establish and oversee educational standards for all city schools.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator