D.C. Authority Appears Set To Oust Smith and Take Control of District
The federally appointed board that oversees the finances of the District of Columbia government appeared ready last week to take control of the city's beleaguered school system and replace its superintendent.
The Washington Post reported that the financial-control board, created last year by Congress to try to solve the city's chronic fiscal troubles, would hire a retired three-star Army general to run the 80,000-student system. The control board reportedly planned to buy out the remainder of Superintendent Franklin L. Smith's contract, which is scheduled to end in June.
The newspaper said retired Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., a former president of Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, and a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would be named chief executive of the school system.
Mr. Becton would report to an education panel appointed by the financial-control board, the Post reported, and the authority of the 11-member elected school board would be diminished.
Mark Goldstein, the control board's deputy director, said last week that he could neither confirm nor deny the report. He said the board was scheduled to release a report on the school system late this week.
School leaders in Washington have been on notice for months that they could be the target of radical changes. Andrew F. Brimmer, the control board's chairman, has been sharply critical of both Mr. Smith and the school board.
The school system has been plagued by poor student achievement, repeated fire-code violations that delayed the opening of some schools, flagging employee morale, and problems with contracts with outside vendors. Administrators also have faced continuing questions about exactly how many employees the system has and how many students it serves.
School Board Opposition
At a press conference here last week, Mr. Smith said he had not discussed the reported changes with officials from the control board. "I have no concrete evidence that any of this will come to fruition," he said. "I feel I've been slapped in the face for the last four or five months."
Mr. Smith complained that the control board had ordered deep budget cuts, refused to approve key contracts, and had not made an effort to "work as a team."
The news of impending changes came the morning after Election Day, dismaying some school board members.
"We just completed an election yesterday where the citizens of the District of Columbia indicated by their vote that they wanted an elected school board," said Wilma R. Harvey, a 10-year board member who retained her seat. "I think based on that premise the board is germane and key to getting the system back on track."
Ms. Harvey and Karen Shook, the school board president, questioned whether the control board has the authority to usurp the power of the elected school board.
The federal law that created the control board gave it broad oversight over the District of Columbia government, which includes its school system.
Mr. Smith said at the press conference that Joyce A. Ladner, a member of the control board who has been overseeing education reform, told him: "'You can't win this. Roll with the punches.'"
But Mr. Smith gave no indication that he would step down. "I'm acting as superintendent," he said. "And I will do that until they say, 'Mr. Superintendent, turn in your keys.'"