New D.C. Chief Will Face Revised Board Structure

By Catherine Gewertz — July 12, 2000 3 min read
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The financial-control board that oversees much of the city government in the nation’s capital last week named Paul L. Vance, a former superintendent in nearby Montgomery County, Md., to head the District of Columbia schools.

Paul L. Vance

Mr. Vance, 69, will replace Arlene Ackerman, who leaves the post July 17 to run the 64,000-student San Francisco schools. The terms of his contract were not set, though Mr. Vance said he expects to be on the job for at least two years.

His appointment came on the heels of a referendum in which the city’s voters appear to have narrowly approved a new governance structure for the school district. The measure would give some control over the District of Columbia school board to the mayor and ease the confusion and conflicting lines of authority that were an important factor in Ms. Ackerman’s decision to leave.

Unofficial returns for the June 27 special election showed 51 percent in favor of the proposal to shrink the current 11-member, elected board to nine members, with five elected and four to be appointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The election was marked by low turnout: Only 11.7 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots.

The returns were unofficial, since 2,200 absentee and other special ballots remained to be counted, but the results were expected to hold. To reverse the outcome, 70 percent of the uncounted ballots would have to be against the measure.

Final results were expected late last week. If the results stand, new board members would be elected in November and take office in January.

Supporters of the measure, for which Mr. Williams campaigned heavily, were optimistic that it would create a more unified school board that could proceed more efficiently toward improving the poor performance of Washington’s 71,000-student district.

“This change at least provides some hope that we can get a board that works together, that knows what it wants and sticks to it, and therefore can get a good superintendent,” said Mary M. Levy, a longtime schools activist who chaired the campaign to pass the measure.

The issue of who controls the school board has become divisive in a city that has long chafed under its limited powers of self-determination. Congress, the financial-control board it created in 1996 to oversee the beleaguered city, and the District of Columbia Council all have a hand in school governance.

That system has been widely criticized by many in the city, including the outgoing superintendent. Ms. Ackerman said she found it impossible to improve the schools with so many conflicting lines of authority.

A ‘First Step’

The financial- control board has already returned power over city government to the mayor and the council, but postponed returning similar powers to the school board as city leaders bickered in recent months over how the board should be restructured. The referendum proposal was a compromise; a majority of the council wanted to maintain an elected board, and the mayor wanted an all appointed one.

Now that a governance plan has been approved by voters, most expect the control board to relinquish that power back to the school board within six months.

But in the days after the election, bitterness lingered among those who wanted to preserve an all-elected board. Some African-Americans who opposed the measure were resentful that Mr. Williams, who is black, campaigned so heavily for it in white neighborhoods, where it found the most support.

Many residents, whose Congressional representation is limited to one nonvoting member, lamented the loss of what they viewed as one of their few rights to representation—the ability to choose school board members.

“People should have the right to choose who they want to represent them,” said William Lockridge, the vice president of the current school board.

Mr. Lockridge said vesting more power in the mayor was not the answer to the school district’s problems. He blamed city government for the troubles that have persisted in the past three years, such as late paychecks and substandard facilities, while the current board has been powerless.

“To say that the mayor has a magic wand he can wave and choose four people and all our problems go away is misleading,” Mr. Lockridge said.

Assistant Editor Robert C. Johnston contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as New D.C. Chief Will Face Revised Board Structure


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