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Council gets 3rd school governance option

Orange-Brazil plan retains 11-member elected Board of Education,

elects president citywide, requires no change in cityís home rule charter

(Published December 13, 1999)


Staff Writer

The third proposal to overhaul the school board introduced since the beginning of November ó this one from Councilmen Harold Brazil, D-at large, and Vincent B. Orange Sr., D-Ward 5 -- has gotten a lukewarm reception from the current D.C. Board of Education.

The new proposal, introduced Dec. 7, would retain the current 11-member elected school board but require citywide election of its president.

"Itís an interesting proposal but we continue to see different acts of board restructuring by the council," said at-large member Tonya Vidal Kinlow. "Changes in the board should be citizen-generated," said Kinlow, who called for further public hearings and focus groups to determine what kind of board D.C. residents want. Still, she added, the proposal is "a step above what weíve seen to date."

Ward 3 board member Donald Reeves called the new proposed changes, along with other recent proposals, "non-educational, loose cannon ideas" that do not outline how to solve problems such as inadequate facilities and insufficient autonomy for the board members.

Reeves questioned why the council members have not studied the reforms called for in the D.C. Board of Educationís transition plan to restructure the board and designate the powers of the board and the superintendent.

"Instead of sticking to that document, what the council has done is come up with their own proposals," he said.

Orange and Brazil are the two council members who opposed recent legislative proposals to diminish the size of the school board and either create an appointed board or a board with ward representatives chosen in citywide elections. Unlike these other proposals, the Orange/Brazil plan would not require changing the cityís home rule charter.

"Real reform for the school board should come from the District of Columbia electorate at the voting polls," said Orange at the councilís Dec. 7 legislative session.

Orange urged the control board to return the school boardís powers no later than June 2000, as planned.

"We are one election away from allowing the voters to solve some of the problems of the D.C. school board," said Orange. "I have the utmost respect and confidence that the voters of this great city can address the problems of the school board through the ballot. Look at what the D.C. voters have accomplished with the new faces on the council," he said.

Orange added that under his plan, the president of the school board "would now be elected and held accountable to the city voters and not the school board members." School board members currently pick their own president from among all board members.

The bill provides for the board to hire and remove the school superintendent and to establish personnel policies for the superintendent to hire principals and other personnel. But the board would not have authority to make or approve personnel decisions or to negotiate with unions. The board and superintendent would also be required to adopt a memorandum of understanding designating the division of roles between them, which would be subject to the city councilís approval.

Under the proposal, the superintendent would be required to recommend an annual budget to the board. The board would be required to prepare and publicize a reconciled version of the public schools budget within 60 days after an appropriations bill has been enacted.

The Orange-Brazil bill, introduced at the councilís Dec. 7 legislative session, is the third recent school governance proposal. On Nov. 1, Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, who heads the councilís education committee, proposed diminishing the school board from its current 11-member size to a nine-member board and instituting a two-tiered election process. Under his plan, voters would select the top two ward candidates in a primary election and the winner would be chosen in a citywide election. Three weeks later, Patterson proposed replacing the 11-member elected board with a five-member board appointed by the mayor.

"I think (the new bill) doesnít go far enough," said Patterson. She predicted that the education committee would significantly change the school boardís election process and size and that council would not support letting the school board regain its powers until January 2001, after the next school board election.

The control board stripped 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 boardís authority is now limited to overseeing a handful of the cityís charter schools. The board is supposed to regain its power in June 2000, under an agreement negotiated after school board members sued the control board and won. Chavous has asked the control board not to return the school boardís authority until Jan. 2001, after the next school board election.

Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said she thinks the new proposal sounds like a better alternative than Chavousí proposal because it would not change the home rule charter. Rice-Thurston said she favors amending D.C. law rather than the home rule charter to designate the boardís responsibilities, which are not adequately described in current law.

But she gave the new reform proposal a mixed review because she said a school board should elect its own leader.

"The president of a school board...has to make it function," she said. The board itself, she said, may have an easier time picking a strong leader than the public.

"I have heard from people that council chair (Linda) Cropp was not as strong a leader as people would have liked," Rice-Thurston continued. The council chairman is elected by voters citywide, rather than being chosen by council colleagues.

At-large board member Gail Dixon urged the council to work with the school board to examine what past mistakes former board members had made and how the council and school board could create systemic reforms. While citing a contentious Nov. 29 hearing at which the board and council members exchanged insults, Dixon said the board did not wish to continue having "sparring matches" with the council over school governance.

Meanwhile, in a related development, Amy Mauro, an aide to Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward 6, said Ambrose is drafting a proposal to create a school board with four elected members and three members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. Each elected member would represent two wards, said Mauro.

"That way, youíre guaranteeing geographic representation while decreasing the size of the board," she said. While citing a recent report by the D.C. Appleseed Foundation recommending that a board of nine or fewer members works better than a larger board, she added, "Five or seven members is a reasonable number."

Ambrose, who has circulated her ideas among the council, is expected to introduce her proposal within the next two weeks, Mauro said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator