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Referendum foes implore: ‘Just vote no’

(Published May 22, 2000)


Staff Writer

Parent and civic groups have launched a citywide campaign urging voters to defeat a referendum on the June 27 ballot that would change the makeup of the D.C. Board of Education.

And while "Just Vote No!" flyers and badges are beginning to show up around town and foes of the ballot measure – put forward as a compromise between the mayor and city council – are speaking to community meetings and on radio call-in shows, there appears at least so far to be no visible campaign in support of the proposed change.

A so-called "hybrid" – partially elected and partially appointed – school board would replace the current 11-member elected board if voters approve the referendum at the June special election. As worded, the measure would allow the new school board’s structure to be changed again in four years by elected leaders simply enacting a new law, rather than voters needing to approve further changes in how the school board is selected.

The referendum also would insert language defining the school board’s duties into the home rule charter, whereas those duties are now defined in municipal regulations that do not require voter approval. A change in the home rule charter requires approval by a majority of voters who turn out to vote on a proposed amendment.

At the first of what is expected to be many citywide public forums to explain the proposed change to voters, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the council’s education committee chairman, Ward 7 Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, both failed to show up May 18 at the League of Women Voters’ event during which they were scheduled to be the only proponents on the panel. In their place, both sent staff members.

About 200 people attended the forum, co-sponsored by The Common Denominator and several other local organizations, at the University of the District of Columbia during which opponents of the referendum were loudly cheered.

Most members of the current elected school board sat quietly in the audience, which also included many advisory neighborhood commissioners and other civic leaders who approached the microphones to speak out against any change in the school board’s structure. No city council members appeared to be in attendance, although several showed up that same evening at an event kicking off the re-election campaign of council colleague Harold Brazil, D-At large. Little support for the referendum was evident among those who spoke.

In fact, much of what mayoral policy chief Gregory McCarthy and Chavous aide Bonnie Cain said in support of the referendum merely addressed what they said is a need for change within the school system. McCarthy referred to the referendum as "just a beginning," while Cain talked about "taking a good strong look at what can be done differently."

"This is not what’s best for the city – it sounds like we’re asking for one more experiment to be thrust on our children," said panelist Kathryn Pearson-West, a Ward 5 civic activist whose daughter will graduate from D.C. Public Schools next month.

She called the current school board’s structure, which has not been changed since Congress created the Board of Education as the city’s first elected body under home rule, "the right way" to govern the schools but noted that "sometimes the wrong people" get elected to the board.

"The solution is the ballot box, ladies and gentlemen," said panelist Larry Gray, legislative chairman for the D.C. Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations.

ANC 4C-07 Commissioner Angela Christophe was among many speakers who criticized city officials for scheduling a special election that will cost taxpayers about $370,000 and probably draw a low voter turnout, rather than placing the referendum on the Sept. 12 primary ballot – expected to draw the most city voters to the polls this year.

She also noted that the June 27 election is just three days before the presidentially appointed financial control board had promised to return full authority over the schools to the Board of Education, which was stripped of its powers by the control board the day after voters elected new school board members in November 1996. She and others urged voters to send a message to the control board, council and mayor by voting against the referendum.

"If there are certain people the mayor wants (appointed) on the board, why not put them on a slate and run them for the Board of Education?" Christophe asked rhetorically. Six of the 11 seats on the current school board are scheduled to be up for election this fall.

"The timing of this referendum and its content were not parent-inspired," said panelist Gray, who noted his association represents 7,000 members in 60 percent of the city’s public schools.

"Somebody in a position of political power thinks they know what’s good for us," he said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator