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Superintendent Under Fire in Beleaguered D.C.

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Much as it did two years ago, the school year began in the District of Columbia with schools ordered closed because of fire-code violations, public outrage over the district's management, and calls for a new superintendent.

Last week, the federally appointed control board that oversees Washington's city finances was reportedly considering whether to fire Superintendent Franklin L. Smith and appoint a receiver over the school system.

Meanwhile, officials in the 80,000-student system scrambled to complete repairs to one junior high school and four elementary schools that were ordered shut. School district officials said last week that the renovations are scheduled to be finished by late this month or early October.

Superior Court Judge Kaye K. Christian had set a deadline of Aug. 21 for all public schools in the capital city to meet the city's fire regulations. Though school officials met that deadline for most of their 164 schools, she ordered the five remaining schools closed for the Sept. 3 start of the school year.

In the weeks leading up to the deadline, Judge Christian, parents, and the local news media expressed anger and disbelief that the district once again could not meet one of the most basic criteria for starting the year--providing its students with safe school buildings.

"The students have learned that you believe you are above the law and that the rules do not apply to you," the judge told school officials during a four-hour hearing Aug. 23. "They have learned that it is acceptable to shy away from responsibility."

Two years ago, the start of the school year was delayed three days because of widespread fire-code violations that affected nearly a third of the district's schools. When school did open, thousands of students attended class at alternative sites until repairs were completed at 11 schools. (Please see "Fire-Code Violations Send 6,000 to Makeshift Classrooms in D.C.," September 21, 1994.)

Judge Christian had rejected a suggestion that would have called for teachers to take part in "fire watch" duty in unapproved buildings so they could have opened on time.

Mr. Smith has long maintained that the recurring problems stem from a persistent lack of funds to upgrade the aging infrastructure.

He could not be reached for comment last week. In an interview with The Washington Post late last month, the superintendent defended his practices and said he was being blamed for everything wrong in the system.

"If Franklin Smith becomes a scapegoat and the youngsters get a quality education, then I think it's well worth it," Mr. Smith told the newspaper, although he gave no indication that he would resign.

Continuing Troubles

The fire-code violations were one of a series of administrative problems that plagued the school district over the summer, and the control board was reportedly considering drastic changes in the way the school district is managed.

Late last month, the control board ordered Karen Shook, the school board president, to provide copies of the superintendent's personnel evaluation.

Ms. Shook said in a statement that many of the problems in the school district have been caused by financial cuts made by the control board, Congress, the City Council, and the mayor to address long-running fiscal woes in the city.

Anthony A. Williams, the city's chief financial officer, however, said in an interview that the school district's money troubles were a product of poor management and incompetence. He noted that the system has accumulated a $32 million deficit this year alone in its budget of $515 million.

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