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Council Moving To Gain More Say Over D.C. Schools

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District of Columbia officials have launched an attack on employee job protections and school board powers in the city's public school system.

The city council was moving last week to strip school employees' unions of their influence over the evaluations of teachers and administrators. As part of the city's budget package sent annually to Congress, the council declared that evaluation procedures will no longer be negotiable in school contract talks.

Meanwhile, outside experts studying the school district's facility needs at the request of Superintendent Franklin L. Smith have concluded that the district has been overreporting its enrollment by about 20 percent.

The experts found that the district enrolls about 67,000 students, not 81,000 as it currently reports, Jim Ford, the staff director for the city council's education committee, said late last week.

Mr. Smith last week reportedly called for an internal audit to straighten out the enrollment discrepancy but said he believes the higher enrollment figure is correct.

The city council has demanded deep new cuts in the number of people employed by the school system, which gets its funding from the city. Council members have said they plan to exercise substantial new line-item-veto power over the school budget and to reduce the funding, staff, and authority of the city school board.

"It is without question that the board of education's stewardship of the D.C. public schools is lousy and often embarrassing," the council's education committee charged in a report calling for such actions.

The school system, the report contended, has developed a culture in which "anything goes, even if you get caught."

The council last week was considering several other measures that would dramatically change the governance structure of the school system. They included proposals to transfer many of the school board's powers to a superintendent appointed by the mayor; to create a 15-member commission that would oversee the school system, higher education, and children's services; and to change the city charter to eliminate the school board and give the mayor and city council control over the district's budget, policies, and facilities.

"I firmly believe no one can fix this school system," Mr. Ford said last week. "There are too many structural and cultural problems that simply cannot be eradicated unless many of the people who are now employed by the school system go."

Congressional leaders, meanwhile, reportedly were discussing proposals to create a financial-control board for the school system similar to the one they have imposed on the city government. Other ideas being floated on Capitol Hill include the creation of a voucher program and residential schools for the system, as well as the privatization of certain services and management functions.

Period of Turmoil

The city council's actions have come during period of continuing turmoil in the District of Columbia and its public schools.

The schools have been plagued by financial troubles and rocked by a series of scandals. And city officials have blamed what they say are the school system's inefficiencies for contributing to the broader financial woes of the Washington city government, which a new federal law places under the temporary oversight of the financial-control board. (See Education Week, 4/19/95.)

School board members, however, have vowed to oppose the city's efforts to gain more control over the schools. They contend that the school system's leadership has been far more fiscally responsible, and far less politicized, than the city council now seeking to take over many of its powers.

Beverly Lofton, a spokeswoman for Superintendent Smith, said the school system has made great strides in the past year. "We are going to continue to work diligently to increase student achievement and provide a quality education for our students," she said.

As the council's budget ax loomed overhead last week, administrators, teachers, and school board members quarreled over who most deserved a spot on the chopping block.

"The school system is at the mercy of the legislative and executive branches of the city, and that has me more than a little concerned," Wilma R. Harvey, the board's president, said last week.

"In order for us to get through this crisis in the city, we have to come together as collective bodies, and children have to be our highest priority," Ms. Harvey said.

Federally Driven Change

President Clinton is expected this month to appoint the five members of the financial-control board for the city. The panel will have the power to accept or reject the school district's budget, to review contracts with unions and vendors, and to order changes in the city government and schools.

At the request of city officials who had protested their inability to control school spending, the new law gives the mayor and city council line-item-veto powers over the school district's budget.

Even before Mr. Clinton signed the measure into law last month, city council members had discussed applying their pending line-item veto to the school budget for the coming fiscal year. They backed off, however, because, with a vote on the overall city budget before them, they did not believe that they had time, Mr. Ford said.

In its budget bill, the city council agreed to eliminate 155 positions from the school district's payroll in the coming fiscal year, for savings of at least $5 million, and to ask the schools to come up with an additional $7.5 million in budget reductions to keep its budget at about $503 million. The school district already has cut 300 teaching and 180 central-office positions, saving $14 million, in the current fiscal year. It has 11,000 employees, including 6,000 teachers, on its payroll.

The council failed to act on some members' calls to freeze the school board members' annual salaries at about $33,000--or to replace their salaries with $5,000 annual stipends--and to slash the board's budget for staff and travel.

Board members recently came under fire for accepting raises they had promised to forgo and for offering to pay their executive secretary an annual salary of $65,000 to $82,000. The executive-secretary position was open because a judge last fall ousted a former school board member who had helped vote himself into the job.

Unions Peeved

The city council had inserted the budget provisions dealing with teacher and administrator evaluations at the request of the school board--largely without the knowledge of the unions whose members were affected.

In a memo sent to the council last month, board members had said the change was needed so that the school system could be "responsive to educational needs" and "would not be hindered by union challenges at every step."

The D.C. Committee on Public Education, a nonprofit watchdog group, has noted that virtually all of the system's teachers are rated satisfactory or better, and the group called the evaluation system "a sham."

The council's decision to back the measure could help clear the way for Mr. Smith's recent proposal to tie the evaluations of teachers and administrators to student achievement.

The administrators' and teachers' unions have pledged, however, to defend the current evaluation system against the superintendent's proposal and the new city council measure.

Frank P. Bolden, the president of the Council of School Officers, which represents administrators, last week accused the school board of trying to circumvent contractual agreements by seeking to legislate changes that should be addressed only through collective bargaining.

"That is plain and pure subterfuge," argued Mr. Bolden, who expressed fears that Congressional approval of the city-budget bill could leave the evaluation provision "locked in concrete."

The Washington Teachers Union last week filed a motion in District of Columbia Superior Court seeking to have the new provision in the city budget declared unconstitutional. Barbara A. Bullock, the president of the union, said she would urge Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. to veto the measure.

"If teachers have to spend 70 percent to 75 percent of their time disciplining students, if they do not have updated curriculum, if they do not have high-tech equipment, nor supplies, how do you expect to hold teachers accountable?" Ms. Bullock asked.

Mr. Bolden said the administrators' union also plans to challenge a new provision in the city budget that blocks his union's members from automatically getting teaching jobs if their administrative positions are eliminated.

An Uphill Road

President Clinton has described the measure creating the new fiscal control board as "a road back" for the District of Columbia, whose residents, he said, "deserve to live in a city that works."

Over the past year, the school system broke down in several places, and its leadership has encountered mixed success in making repairs. Among the school district's problems:

  • The school year began three days late after a judge ordered schools closed for widespread fire-code violations. (See Education Week, 9/21/94.)

Last month, a court-ordered six-month reinspection found 8,000 additional fire-code violations.

The school year is scheduled to end seven days early because the school system is expected to run out of money.
In March, a federal judge found the system in violation of federal law for its failure to pay $700,000 in overdue bills to private providers of services for special-needs students.
Recent reports from the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, concluded that the school district has overstated its cuts in administration and failed to provide adequate financial information to the city. A separate recent G.A.O. report described the district as having a severe maintenance backlog and said many of its buildings were old and underused.
The recent D.C. Committee on Public Education report praised Mr. Smith for "a real and substantial reduction in central-office staffing" but concluded that the schools "are still shackled by an oppressive bureaucracy."

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