D.C. Schools Chief Announces Resignation

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Julius W. Becton Jr., the retired Army general who took command of the District of Columbia schools as part of a 1996 federal takeover of the city system, announced late last week that he was calling it quits.

Leaders of the federally appointed financial-control board that oversees the city schools said they expected to shortly name Mr. Becton's top deputy as his successor. Arlene Ackerman, the system's chief academic officer and deputy superintendent, would take over the top job upon Mr. Becton's departure June 30.

Andrew F. Brimmer, the control board's chairman, joined Mr. Becton in praising Ms. Ackerman as the ideal leader at a time when the system's main focus must shift from management and operational issues to academic achievement.

Since coming to Washington from the Seattle public schools in August, Ms. Ackerman's initiatives have included an effort to end the social promotion of students. As part of that effort to prevent academically unprepared students from moving on to the next grade, the district will require students who do not perform well on tests to attend summer school.

Ms. Ackerman has also mounted a literacy campaign that includes recruiting community volunteers to tutor students in the early grades.

Mr. Becton's surprise resignation announcement came just 16 months after the five-member control board ousted the city's elected school board and put him in charge. It also caps a recent succession of departures by high-level officials of the 77,000-student district. Those included the resignation in February of another retired general whom Mr. Becton had hand-picked to oversee the district's operational needs, including a problem-plagued effort to repair and replace school roofs. Complications involving the repairs forced Mr. Becton to delay the opening of schools last September by three weeks, a lapse that fueled harsh criticism of his effectiveness.

'Toughest Job'

Mr. Becton made few references to such turmoil in announcing his "return to retirement" last Thursday. Noting that he will turn 72 in June, the outgoing schools chief cited fatigue as his chief reason for leaving. "I'm tired," he said, "physically and emotionally."

A former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a former university president, and a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, Mr. Becton said running the city schools has been his toughest job ever because of "so many competing interests."

Joyce A. Ladner, the control board member who focuses on education issues, praised Mr. Becton for making sense of "the chaos that was present" when he took over from ousted Superintendent Franklin L. Smith.

She said his tenure might have gone more smoothly, however, if the takeover had been structured more like the 1995 governance change in Chicago. The business-style managers there were able to bring in many of their own people, she said, while Mr. Becton initially made relatively few changes in top management.

Bruce K. MacLaury, the chairman of the appointed board of trustees that oversees the school district's day-to-day affairs for the financial-control board, said Mr. Becton had provided a much-needed break with the past and had put in place "people and processes that will carry on."

On Capitol Hill, the chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the city's affairs said Mr. Becton had taken some needed steps, such as closing schools and ousting principals, that the elected school board had failed to take.

"A lot of people would have liked to see more change sooner,"said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va. "But we have to recognize that these are very difficult institutional problems, and they don't get solved overnight."

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Web Resources
  • Read the executive summary of "Children in Crisis," the District of Columbia control board's report on the public schools, published in The Washington Post, Nov. 12, 1996.
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