front page - search - community 

School transition in trouble

Some wonder if elected D.C. boardís power to govern will ever be returned

(Published July 17, 1999)


Staff Writer

With less than one year left to prepare for its scheduled return to power and to restore its public image, the D.C. Board of Education is mired in conflict. And itís not just recent allegations of misdoing about board president Wilma Harvey.

Watchers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are beginning to wonder about the boardís fitness to govern. Members of the board say the control board saddled them with "busy work" thatís all process and no content, and they canít get crucial information about the schools they are soon supposed to resume running.

Residents both on and off the board say in increasingly louder tones that the whole transition process isnít working.

"We are meeting deadlines and producing documents, but itís more like an exercise in jumping through hoops," said Ward 3 member Don Reeves. "Is any of this making a difference in the fundamental way we do business? I donít see it."

On paper, the transition to power seems to be proceeding as planned. The board has been busy drafting the required documents, and small group meetings nearly seven days a week helped the board meet its first three deadlines.

But behind the scenes many are asking if the District will even have an elected school board a year from now.

The school board, stripped of its power by the congressionally appointed financial control board in 1996, is due to return to power on June 30, 2000. The date was established as part of a settlement of a lawsuit that school board members filed against the control board for creating an appointed board of trustees to usurp the elected boardís authority. An initial court ruling forced the control board to turn the school trustees into an "advisory" body.

Now the Board of Education has less than a year to wait, but the return to power is not guaranteed.

"We are being watched very carefully," Harvey said. "This kind of stuff will keep us from getting our authority back."

The fitness of the board for its return to power "is definitely a topic of conversation" among the members of the Senate government affairs subcommittee on the District, "but itís too early to make comments on it," said John Shumake, spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, the subcommittee chair.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., chair of the House oversight subcommittee on the District, supports the boardís gradual return to power "as long as itís done in the right way with consensus," said spokesman Trey Hardin. "If we thought there was a breakdown in consensus, then we could play a role" in altering the power structure.

Some argue the major problems arenít the school board membersí fault.

"The control board put the school board in an impossible situation," said education activist Susan Gushue, a parent of D.C. public school students. "They gave them no power, no staff, no information and said, ĎGo play amongst yourselves.í Now theyíre turning on each other. Canít they understand we need them to get along?"

The current crisis is a stark contrast to a period just three months ago, when the school board forced a public discussion on a policy the superintendent wanted to keep quiet. The public hearing on the weighted student formula at Hine Junior High School led eventually to the revision of Arlene Ackermanís proposed formula ó it was the boardís first public victory in years. It forced a policy change. Somehow, that momentum got lost, Gushue said.

Part of the problem, observers say, is a "transition plan" that emphasizes process over content, with myriad deadlines for required documents, a profusion of committees and a heavy emphasis on management jargon that in fact says very little.

"Component One" of the "Leadership and Consensus Building Development Plan," for example, states in part that "an effective board provides leadership for public education and is an advocate for the educational needs and interests of the children" and "an effective board uses strategic planning to set educational goals." In "Component Two" the document states, "the new board feels strongly that educational leaders for the students must develop skills that are broadly applicable and divergent to address many issues."

Reeves said he and others want to fire the two facilitators hired by the control board, whom he said have taken control of the transition process and moved authority from the members themselves to a host of writers and consultants who sometimes draft documents first and ask for input later.

"This is the Board of Educationís process, not the facilitatorsí," said Tonya Vidal Kinlow, an at-large member of the board. "This is our transition and we ought to be in charge of it."

The facilitators, Shanye Schneider and Connie Spinner, were first introduced to the board by their friend at-large board member Gail Dixon, Harvey said. The control board then signed them to a $78,000 sole source contract that pays them $125 an hour up to $1,000 a day.

Kinlow, Reeves and others on the board say they want the National School Boards Association to come in and help the board prepare its strategic documents while the role of the facilitators is limited or eliminated.

"There is a group of us who feel the process isnít working and needs to be changed," Kinlow said. "It needs to be restructured so there is equal opportunity for participation, so that we are all working on the same thing at the same time. And there are enough of us that either by consensus or by caveat, things will change. Otherwise weíll come out of this with a bunch of little documents and no real plan of action."

Meanwhile board members say they still donít know what is actually going on in the schools.

Getting information from the central administration under Superintendent Ackerman is "like pulling teeth," Harvey said. "People call me wanting to know if their principal is leaving and I canít tell them."

"What policies are on the books now? What have the trustees been doing for the last four years? We have not a clue," said Ward 2 member Westy Byrd. "We are still out of the loop."

Instead the board has nearly exhausted its members with seemingly endless meetings, a trip to San Francisco for a convention of the National School Boards Association, and, soon, quarterly retreats.

Byrd said those activities have been helpful, but do not address what she called "core competencies" board members need to master: basic procedures in budgeting, procurement and facilities management. Competency in those areas is now included as a goal in the boardís planning documents, but the actual training has not yet taken place, she said.

Control board Vice Chairman Constance Newman, who oversees education matters, did not return a call for comment. Chairman Alice Rivlin was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Gushue and other education observers now wonder if recent allegations against Harvey will deal the school board its mortal blow, confirming the worst stereotypes held by the public. Byrd, Reeves and Ward 4 board member Dwight Singleton recently called for Harveyís resignation, claiming the school board president had a board staff member create a personal travel brochure for her on government time. Harvey has denied the accusation and refused to step down, but many wonder if the allegations alone have damaged the boardís fragile reputation.

Byrd argues just the opposite.

"I see it as a positive step," said Byrd, who submitted a letter of complaint against Harvey to the Office of Campaign Finance. "Members of this board are saying ĎIf this is true, itís unacceptable.í It shows our ethical bar will be high. It would have been very easy to say nothing."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator