City Leaders Mull Plans To Overhaul D.C. School Board

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Two new plans before Washington's City Council would overhaul the elected District of Columbia school board, only months before the panel is scheduled to regain broad powers that the federal government stripped from it in 1996.

Kevin P. Chavous

The first proposal, sponsored by council member and education committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous, would reduce the size of the board from 11 members to nine; require members to be elected citywide, rather than by ward; and eliminate the board's authority to approve and oversee public charter schools in the 77,000-student system.

As it stands, one school board member is elected from each of the city's eight wards, and three members are elected at large.

Mr. Chavous' proposal would also keep the school board from regaining most of its powers until January 2001, when members elected under his plan would be sworn into office. Currently, the board is slated to regain control over the city's schools in June, when it will again have the authority to hire or fire the superintendent and set most of the system's education agenda.

After completing a study that chronicled years of mismanagement and academic failure in the system, the financial-control board created by Congress in 1996 to oversee the city stripped the school board of most of its powers. Since then, the school board has had merely an advisory role to both the financial-control board and a nine-member appointed board of trustees that oversees the schools.

The other overhaul plan, sponsored by council member Kathy Patterson, would trim the school board to five members, all of whom would be appointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams and confirmed by the 13-member City Council.

Ms. Patterson's proposal includes holding a referendum in 2004 that would ask local voters if they preferred the appointed-board system or an elected board.

Politics Above Students

The new plans come amid heated criticism of the elected school board, whose members have been accused of putting board politics above the interest of the district's students, who continue to perform poorly.

"We need a fundamental change in the way our school board is elected," said Joshua S. Wyner, the executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center, a nonprofit public-interest organization. "We've had decades of poorly performing schools ... [and] a pattern of problems with our school governance system."

Both Mr. Chavous' and Ms. Patterson's recommendations are based, in part, on a report Mr. Wyner's group released earlier this fall. That report, written over a year by a team of lawyers, educators, and school governance experts, says essentially that the elected school board has been ineffective for its entire 30-year history. It argues that the board has micromanaged the district and often split into factions because of most members' ward-based, rather than at-large, status.

Mayor Williams has reserved comment on the proposals since they were announced late last month. But his policy director, Gregory M. McCarthy, said in an interview that the mayor supported reducing the board to seven or fewer members.

Mr. McCarthy declined to say whether Mr. Williams would prefer to appoint the board members, adding that the issue needed more community reaction.

If a plan passes the council, according to Mr. Wyner of the D.C. Appleseed Center, it would need approval from the mayor, Congress, and local voters before it becomes law.

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Page 8

Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as City Leaders Mull Plans To Overhaul D.C. School Board
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