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Ballot options for schools raise questions

(Published February 14, 2000)

Staff Writer

D.C. City Council’s decision to give the voters two options in November for changing school board provisions in the home-rule charter appears to already be causing some confusion, consternation and outright anger among the public.

Several persons contacted by The Common Denominator even expressed concern that the council’s action might somehow cancel the scheduled elections Nov. 7 to fill six of the seats on the current 11-member school board.

Those fears, according to a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, are unfounded.

"At this time, the school board election has to go forward," said elections board spokesman Bill O’Field. The elections board calendar shows nominating petitions will become available for school board candidates to pick up on July 7 and that completed petitions must be filed by Aug. 30.

The home-rule charter requires city voters this fall to elect two at-large school board members and representatives from Wards 1, 3, 5 and 6. Terms of office will be expiring for at-large members Tonya Kinlow and Robert Childs, the school board’s current president, Ward 1 member Wilma Harvey, Ward 3 member Don Reeves, Ward 5 member Angie Corley and Ward 6 member Benjamin Bonham.

Kinlow, a Ward 8 resident who was elected to her first term on the school board the day before the financial control board in November 1996 declared a crisis in D.C. Public Schools and took away the elected school board’s authority, expressed great frustration at what she says has "not been a very well thought out process" by the control board, the council or the mayor.

"Here we are, having this debate about school governance that we could have had four years ago, but on an issue that’s so important, we have waited until the dawn to come up with some solutions. What’s the game plan?" she said.

Kinlow said she has not decided whether it makes sense for her to seek re-election to the board, since voters might eliminate the elective office she would be seeking by approving a charter change at the next election.

"It’s not fair to people who are really interested in doing the job and doing a good job," she said.

Exactly what the voters will be asked to pass judgment on Nov. 7 regarding D.C. Public Schools remains unclear. The city council voted Feb. 1 after a lengthy public debate to place both the mayor’s proposal for a five-member appointed school board and the council’s plan for a nine-member elected school board, approved on a 10-3 vote, on the ballot for voters to make the decision.

Control board chairman Alice Rivlin has been urging the mayor and the council to compromise on a single referendum for voters to approve or disapprove, calling the current situation with two competing ballot initiatives unworkable and divisive for the community.

The current D.C. Board of Education is scheduled to have its full legal authority to run the schools returned by the control board on June 30, although Rivlin has said she would entertain a request from elected officials that the control board delay the school board’s return to power.

School board members contacted for this story said they have received no official notice from the control board that their return to power is being delayed.

At-large school board member Gail Dixon, who for the past year has chaired the board’s subcommittee charged with meeting control-board imposed deadlines as part of a transition back to power, expressed concern that the control board doesn’t seem to be working in good faith to help complete that transition.

"We thought we started off with a good working relationship with Mrs. (Constance) Newman," Dixon said of the control board member assigned oversight duties related to the public schools. "But I think they took all the craziness this summer when we were disagreeing about Wilma (Harvey’s tenure as school board president) as an ‘out.’

"No, we weren’t always agreeing, but I don’t know any group that does. But all this transition work we’ve been required to do was going on throughout. We are still working."

A spokesman for the control board said "it is my understanding that the school board has met all of its deadlines" for submitting required reports to the control board as part of the transitional process. But both the control board spokesman and several school board members said they were unable to determine where the process stands on the control board’s end. Rivlin and Newman did not return calls for comment.

Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said she believes the current school governance debate may simply be focusing on the wrong issues. She has repeatedly criticized the mayor for failing to provide the necessary funding to educate children.

"The job of the control board was to stabilize the schools and they’re failing," she added.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator