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School governance debate begins; board reinstates Harvey

(Published August 23, 1999)

About 75 parents, administrators and D.C. residents met at a public forum Aug. 19 to discuss options for improving the District’s troubled school governance structure.

Former city councilman and attorney William Lightfoot and others argued for making the elected school board into an appointed body, but the majority of speakers insisted that elected officials would be the only ones responsive to the concerns of the voters.

"I have a right to vote them in, and I have a right to vote them out," said Terri Greene, a parent and grandparent of public school students. "And my children will have that right."

Others said the school system’s problems could not be fixed simply by changing from elected to appointed members or by making other structural changes.

"Typically, school board members are elected with a turnout of only 10 or 12 percent of the voters," lamented Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. "We have to ask, is the election really about issues? Or is it just popularity and name recognition? Voters have to pay attention."

Others said the problems are compounded by the news media.

"The media people always portray school issues like a sports report — one team is winning, the other team is losing," said school activist Susan Gushue. "We have to let them know we want them to focus on the real issues, not just the score of the game."

The forum was held at the University of the District of Columbia and was put together by education activist Philip Blair and more than a dozen advocacy groups in the city, including Parents United and the D.C. Statehood Party.

Feuding factions of the elected D.C. Board of Education reached a settlement Aug. 13. Board president Wilma Harvey, who was ousted from that seat in a 6-5 vote several weeks ago, was reinstated.

However she agreed to oversight from an executive committee composed of herself, vice president Dwight Singleton, two as-yet un-named members of the "anti-Harvey" faction and one of Harvey’s supporters.

As a condition of the agreement, Ward 2 board member Westy Byrd, a leader of the movement to oust Harvey, agreed to drop an ethics complaint against Harvey which Byrd had filed with the Office of Campaign Finance.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator