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‘SMOKE & MIRRORS’

School board feud appears far from settled

as Chavous plan perpetuates factionalism

(Published August 9, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

Those who gathered recently for the announcement of a so-called "settlement" between feuding factions of the elected D.C. school board couldn’t help but notice a peculiar attendance pattern: only one side of the debate was there.

All five supporters of embattled school board president Wilma Harvey stood with her to unveil a proposed settlement brokered by Council-man Kevin P. Chavous. But none of the remaining members, who voted last month to remove Harvey from the presidency, were there.

When asked about it, Chavous attributed the opponents’ absence to busy schedules. But others saw it as a sign that the "settlement" — details of which remained unresolved and not yet formally approved when announced — will mean little in the ongoing battle for control of the board. One person close to the mediation process called the Aug. 5 announcement "smoke and mirrors."

"It won’t change things very much, unfortunately," said at-large board member Tonya Vidal Kinlow, who was part of the coalition that voted to oust Harvey from the presidency. "But I think some kind of agreement is going to happen."

The proposal would reinstate Harvey as board president for the remainder of her one-year term under the oversight of an "executive committee." Although an early proposal indicated that the committee would be composed mostly of Harvey’s opponents, a later version includes Harvey and at least one of her supporters on the committee. This version also significantly weakens the committee’s oversight powers, requiring only that they be informed of the president’s decisions. The draft for the first time acknowledges the opposing groups as "majority" and "minority."

"This version is not de-signed to take away all the president’s powers," said Tom Kelly, the board’s Ward 7 representative and a Harvey supporter. "It is designed to support the president and help her communicate better with other members of the board."

But the weakened version seems unlikely to gain support from the opposition. One member called the draft "a joke." And at least one member, Ward 3 representative Don Reeves, vowed not to support any agreement that recognizes Harvey as president.

Meanwhile, many residents and city leaders appeared to be growing impatient and frustrated as the seemingly endless internal struggle played out in the media in recent weeks.

"It’s like the Monica Lewinsky scandal," one observer said. "The city is exhausted. Everyone just wishes it would go away."

Some city leaders, including former control board member Joyce Ladner, have suggested replacing the elected board with an appointed body. But unless the changes are carefully made, the city could end up simply replacing a dysfunctional elected board with an equally dysfunctional appointed board, others say.

"There is no evidence out there that appointed boards are necessarily any better than elected boards," said Josh Wyner, executive director of D.C. Appleseed Center, which is preparing a report on the board’s governance structure. "There have been bad elected boards and bad appointed boards. There is no magic bullet here that’s going to solve everything."

Advocates of an appointed school board argue that it would end the practice of using board membership as a stepping-stone to higher political office and that by abolishing ward representation, it would make board members less preoccupied with parochial interests. Many, including D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, have accused the board of "micromanaging" the schools.

"Everybody always wants the problems to go away," Kinlow said.

But abolishing the elected board won’t make the problems disappear, she said. "Besides, we already have an appointed board. Look how well that has gone."

The appointed Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, which presided over a $62 million deficit in the schools budget last year, is privately considered a failure by education activists, who say the board has done little but "rubber stamp" Ackerman’s policies.

Kinlow and other members insist they are trying to reform the school board from within and that their attempt to remove Harvey was intended to raise the standard of behavior on the board.

The six who voted to oust Harvey — Kinlow, Reeves, the Rev. Robert Childs, Westy Byrd, Benjamin Bonham and Dwight Singleton – all began serving on the board after it was labeled dysfunctional and its powers stripped away by the control board.

Harvey, who has served on the board for 14 years representing Ward 1, is seen as part of the "old guard" along with longtime member Angie King Corley, Ward 5’s representative, who supported her. Ward 8 representative William Lockridge is also associated with previous boards through his uncle Calvin Lockridge, a longtime school board member.

At-large member Gail Dixon, a strong Harvey ally elected last year, said the movement against Harvey is fueled in part by "leftover anger" from board members who were elected in 1996 and immediately stripped of their authority by the control board.

"Those people felt disrespected," Dixon said. "And then they languished for two and a half years with no authority. They look at the ‘old’ board members and think: if it wasn’t for the old boards, we wouldn’t have gotten in trouble."

But those who oppose Harvey say the issue is her behavior and leadership, and they are frustrated that public and media attention has not focused on the substantive charges against her. Harvey has not publicly denied charges that she requested a car and driver and substantially raised the salary and benefits of a school board employee without bringing the matters to the board for action. Harvey has also not responded publicly to questions about why she failed to show up for a key congressional budget hearing in June at which she was expected to represent the board. Following the June no-show, no one from the school board was even invited to the next congressional appropriations hearing on charter schools.

Even Harvey’s supporters admit there may be cause for concern over her leadership.

"I think there was some validity to some of the charges," Kelly said. "But I think they could have been settled within the board instead of going public."

In spite of the seriousness of those charges, some say the attempted coup may have been a mistake.

"They may have miscalculated on voting her out," said attorney Mary Levy, counsel for the advocacy group Parents United. "If they had then pulled together and announced a program of action and started acting as though they had their act together, I think it might have helped."

Instead, the anti-Harvey coalition lost its majority status when at-large board member Childs essentially switched sides to support the "settlement" proposal advanced by Chavous, who chairs the city council’s education committee.

With the school board in the mostly unfavorable glare of the public spotlight, some parents are complaining that no one has been keeping tabs on Superintendent Ackerman.

"No one is talking about the test scores, summer school or the curriculum," said one school parent and activist who asked not to be named, for fear of reprisal against her children or their principal. But she remains concerned about several recent developments.

Ackerman recently transferred exemplary teachers without explanation and has said little about student test scores, which improved by only one percent this year. Students now in summer school apparently will have no formal evaluation of their progress. And the control board appears poised to hand Ackerman a large raise and bonus, without formally evaluating her performance.

But with the school board controversy in the spotlight, little attention has been paid to these concerns.

In fact, activists and elected officials believe that Ackerman has quietly supported and encouraged the anti-Harvey coalition to help move control to a group more favorably disposed to her. Kinlow said she and others in the anti-Harvey group would view their relationship with the superintendent as "a partnership" rather than "threatening to fire her over every little thing."

As board members hash out the details of the settlement in private, public attention is increasingly focused on the future structure of the board. The board, stripped of its power by the control board in 1996, is scheduled to regain its full authority June 30, 2000. But the board’s future structure remains unclear.

The Appleseed report, scheduled to be released around Sept. 20, will outline options for board governance — including an appointed board, an elected board or a combination, Wyner said. The report also will comment on the possibility of reducing the size of the board from its current 11 members and eliminating or limiting ward-based representation, he said.

But the board’s problems may be deeper than simple structural flaws, many say. Dysfunction has plagued the board since its inception, Wyner said. Its difficulties are related not just to its size and structure but to the political culture of the city and its race and class divisions.

In addition, residents are confused about what the board is supposed to do, Wyner said. Many see the board as a constituent services organization. Parents have historically been unable to resolve problems through principals or superintendents and have turned to their elected school board members as a last resort for getting things done, Wyner said.

Board members, overwhelmed by constant demands to mediate disputes, resolve crises and ferret out information, have been distracted from their proper roles of policymaking and oversight, he said. Besides, he added, training residents to resolve school problems through the board, rather than through the school administration, undermines the authority of the superintendent.

Others blame city residents for not paying close enough attention to school board races and basing their votes on newspaper endorsements rather than candidates’ qualifications.

While some civic leaders argue that replacing the city’s oldest elected body with an appointed body would be undemocratic, others say the point isn’t democracy, it’s quality education.

"To most people, it doesn’t matter if the board is appointed or elected," said parent and activist Susan Gushue. "It only matters if it’s effective."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator