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Council urged to slow school board changes

(Published December 6, 1999)


Staff Writer

Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ chief policy adviser and numerous education activists are urging the D.C. City Council to slow its fast-track efforts to change the city’s school governance structure.

Mayoral aide Gregory McCarthy – while noting the mayor supports an overhaul of the elected school board -- called for more reflection on changes in school governance during a council hearing Nov. 29 on separate proposals put forth by council members Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, and Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward3.

"The city needs additional time to discuss the basic goals of school reform in a way that will focus on governance as a means to educate our children, not an end in itself," McCarthy said.

McCarthy was one among several dozen persons who testified during a more than 13-hour hearing on the controversial changes proposed in the school board’s structure that would require altering the city’s home rule charter. Most persons who testified opposed the changes, but for a variety of reasons.

At least some of the arguments against the proposed school governance changes seem to be swaying one member of city council who originally co-sponsored Chavous’ legislation.

Councilman David Catania, R-At-large, said he initially supported Chavous’ proposal because he wanted to see clear roles for school board members. But, Catania said, he was "not particularly fond of having the ward members go citywide" to be elected because candidates who received overwhelming support within their ward could come up far short in citywide run-off elections. He also called Patterson’s proposal for an appointed board "a red herring."

"I don’t happen to think that an appointed school board is any more accountable than a board that is elected," he said, citing that the appointed board of trustees could not run the school system better than the elected school board.

Chavous, chairman of the council’s education committee, has proposed reducing the 11-member board to nine members and having voters citywide choose ward representatives after a ward runoff election. Chavous’ proposal also calls for citywide election of the school board president, and would ask voters to change the home rule charter next spring to define school board responsibilities.

Patterson’s proposal, introduced Nov. 23, calls for the mayoral appointment of a five-member school board. The council would confirm the nominations, and the board would serve for four-year terms. The mayor would appoint the president from among the five members.

Patterson’s legislation would also create a nine-member nominating committee of teachers, parents, community organizations and school staff — also appointed by the mayor.

Nearly 65 witnesses testified at the Nov. 29 hearing, which was attended by 10 council members and lasted until 11:25 p.m. The majority of the witnesses opposed the proposals and called them undemocratic.

Larry Gray, legislative chairman of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers Associations, asked Chavous why he was considering altering the home rule charter when the roles of the school board were defined in the school board’s transition plan and in D.C. municipal regulations.

"Who in their right mind would re-open the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the D.C. home rule charter during the tenure of this Congress?... What is next? Poll taxes? Will a written examination be required to serve on the elected school board or will we just appoint them?" asked Gray.

Chavous said the changes are necessary because "the home rule charter was fundamentally flawed from the very beginning.

"Just saying the home rule charter is untouchable continues to perpetuate our second-class citizenship," Chavous said.

Current school board members and representatives of many education advocacy groups castigated the council and called on its members to focus on problems they said were more fundamental than school governance.

The board members -- represented by Tom Kelly, William Lockridge, Dwight Singleton and Gail Dixon -- said they are not to blame for the problems facing D.C. public schools.

"I believe if we are going to make any substantial progress in our schools, we must stress academic achievement, focus on dropout prevention, increased parental and community involvement...and fund and protect our schools budget," said Singleton, who represents Ward 4.

Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said she was "impressed" by Chavous’ legislation to clarify the board’s roles in the home rule charter, and she emphasized her support for an elected board.

"We do not want to see our superintendent and our school board under the council and the mayor," said Rice-Thurston.

The control board divested the D.C. Board of Education of its authority over the public schools a day after many of its current members were elected in November 1995. The board’s power is now limited to overseeing a handful of the city’s public charter schools. The board is supposed to regain its full authority to run the schools in June 2000.

Patterson defended her proposal against charges it is undemocratic.

"My proposal is not a power grab for the council or mayor or anyone else," said Patterson. "It’s an accountability grab. We already approve budgets — hold us accountable for the policy leadership of our schools."

Patterson also said that her bill would result in more accountability for the school board and called for at-large elections of school board members if the council does not support her proposal for an appointed board.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator