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School board flunks first test
(Published February 12, 2001)

We had hoped the new restructured D.C. Board of Education that took office last month would distinguish itself from its predecessor by making a special effort to accommodate the public, especially parents of the approximately 69,000 students the board is charged with educating.

Apparently, though, a unanimous - and incredibly arrogant - school board doesn't think it needs the public's input on how to spend tax dollars. On Jan. 29, the board unanimously approved a $717 million D.C. Public Schools budget for fiscal 2002 - after a series of secret budget meetings and no public discussion. We are told the new budget includes $75.5 million more than taxpayers are spending on the city's schools during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

As this paper went to press, the school board's staff still was unable to provide a copy of the budget document that board members approved almost two weeks earlier. A 24-page "Citizens' Budget," with color charts, that broadly discusses the board's "FY 2002 Goals and Initiatives" but attaches no numbers to those plans was distributed to the public prior to the mayor's annual public hearing on the schools budget on Feb. 6.

Reports published elsewhere quoted some school board members as apologizing for being too overwhelmed with their duties to focus on involving the public in budget discussions.

This attitude is inexcusable.

The two major duties of the Board of Education - approving the school system's annual budget and selecting a superintendent to run the schools - require public input. These are public schools that D.C. taxpayers are funding. The school board has a moral duty to present its proposed budget to the taxpayers and let the public be heard before a final vote occurs.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who appointed four members of the new nine-member board and publicly supported the election of two other members (including board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz), should have demanded that the public be given the still-secret budget details before his own public hearing was held. We haven't yet heard the mayor ask the school board to open up the budget process to the public.

A year ago Mayor Williams sought legal responsibility for operation of D.C. Public Schools, saying he believed the public would hold him accountable even though he had no legal authority over the schools at that time. Clearly, the mayor now holds great political weight over the school board's actions.

On its first major test, the new D.C. Board of Education failed to make the grade on our scorecard. Is the mayor still willing to be held accountable?



Copyright 2001 The Common Denominator