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Reforming the school board

Chavous plan to change home rule charter draws mixed reaction

from parent groups, denunciation from current school board members

(Published November 15, 1999)


Staff Writer

D.C. Board of Education members and local citizens groups are criticizing a proposal by the D.C. City Councilís education committee chairman that would decrease the number of school board members, make ward representatives win citywide election and require voters to select the school board president.

Councilman Kevin P. Chavousís far-reaching plan, unveiled Nov. 1 after his committee held a series of public meetings on various public school problems, would require a voter-approved change in the Districtís home rule charter. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Nov. 29 before the councilís education committee.

Members of the current school board appear to be particularly sensitive to Chavousís frequent reference to the 11-member body being mired in a morass of bickering, which made headlines this summer when the board split over an effort to remove Ward 1 representative Wilma Harvey as school board president. Chavous attempted to mediate the dispute and now contends that reducing the boardís size by two members will help decrease the bickering.

"I believe that in any democratically elected organization we are going to have people who agree and people who disagree," said at-large board member Tonya Kinlow. "I donít see how (Chavous) thinks changing a number would make that different."

Ward 8 board member William Lockridge agreed with Kinlow.

"When (bickering) happens in Congress or in the city council, itís called debating," he said.

Among other proposed home rule charter changes, Chavousís plan would delineate the school boardís role in hiring the superintendent, approving the annual budget and reconciling it after Congress approves it, and establishing policies to guide expenditures. The plan also would require the superintendent and the board to develop a joint "memorandum of understanding" every two years, which the city council would approve.

In a companion bill, which would not require voter approval, Chavous advocates changing the current 90-day residency requirement for school board candidates to one year, rescinding the boardís authority to issue charters to charter schools, and giving board members four-year staggered terms that begin the same year as those of ward council members.

Joshua S. Wyner, executive director of D.C. Appleseed Center, numbers among supporters of the Chavous proposal. The councilmanís plan incorporates some of the ideas put forth in the centerís September report that examined options for structural reform of the cityís school board.

"I think that it will improve the way the school system works," Wyner said. "It will allow students to get a better education."

Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, called the Chavous plan "a mixed bag."

"I was shocked when I realized that there was no statement (in the cityís charter) as to what the board of education would do," said Rice-Thurston. "Our hope is that by defining their roles we will reduce the friction between the board and the school superintendent."

But Rice-Thurston said her group sees "nothing wrong with having ward representation (maintained) because you want to feel you will be listened to."

In a recent statement, five members of the current school board criticized Chavous and others for attempting to make the board a scapegoat for problems they allege the school trustees and the control board are responsible for ó including schools that opened three weeks late one year, a lack of certified teachers in classrooms, and teachersí checks arriving late.

"We very much regret that demonizing the current elected Board of Education is part of the argument for these proposals," they wrote. "Real change will occur in the school system when the people of this city are once again involved in the running of their schools."

Lockridge, Harvey, at-large member Gail Dixon, Ward 7 member Tom Kelly and Ward 4 member Dwight Singleton attached their names to the statement.

Under the Chavous proposal, a September primary would be held in which voters in each ward would choose their top two candidates to run in a citywide general election in November.

Kelly said holding citywide elections for board members representing wards is "undemocratic" and would disenfranchise D.C. voters.

"Are we to believe that citizens across the city would know better than the citizens in Ward 7 who would be the best representatives for them?" Kelly asked.

Ward 6 board member Benjamin Bonham agreed and said that hypothetically, if the top candidate received 98 percent of the wardís vote in the primary, and the city disliked the winner, the city could elect the less-popular candidate.

"I donít think that is a fair process for people in the ward," he said.

But Chavous said his proposal "is the most pure form of democracy weíve ever had in this city" because it "is designed to get people to talk about what ward representation means.

"The citizens will ultimately vote this up or down. Ward members really didnít look out for citywide interest," Chavous said.

Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, who favors decreasing the board to five members, also said she disagrees with the basis of the school board membersí concerns.

"I think thereís no reason to have a ward-based system," Patterson said. "Where weíve gotten in trouble in the past is people overly concerned with individual neighborhoods, individual schools. Policy making should be for the entire District of Columbia public school system, not policies for my ward and my neighborhood."

School board members, she charged, spent too much of their school board time on personnel matters instead of implementing and overseeing the superintendentís work.

"What personnel matters has the board been overseeing?" Bonham asked, citing that nine of the 11 board members were elected to the board after the control board and school trustees took over running the schools and handling personnel matters.

"What the council is attempting to do is make themselves look good at a time when the board of education is vulnerable," Bonham said. He noted that the board has been working steadily on its transition schedule to regain full authority over the public school system in June 2000.

When Chavous introduced his proposal, he said that the home rule charter did not delineate the roles of the school board, which "has led to some of the dysfunction that we have seen in recent years."

Kinlow and D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers Associations legislative chairman Larry Gray challenged Chavousí charges that new board members did not understand their jobs because the charter did not explicitly define them.

"Mr. Chavous is mistaken when he says the responsibilities of the school board are not defined," Gray said. He added that the school boardís responsibilities are defined in chapter 3 of title 5 in the D.C. code, which "has been developed over decades by democratically elected officials in the District."

Kinlow agreed.

Just as newly elected members of Congress attend a workshop at Princeton University, she said, newly elected school board members since 1998 attend a three-day orientation to learn about their jobs, Kinlow said. But, she added, school board members -- like council members without legislative backgrounds -- need experience to learn how to do their jobs.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator