Compromise Plan For D.C. Governance Stalls

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

After weeks of wrangling over how to structure the District of Columbia's school governance, a series of 11th-hour disapprovals and dashed agreements left frustrated city officials little closer last week to rebuilding their school board than they were when the effort began.

The City Council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams had spent many hours in sometimes tense negotiation to come up with a plan for a hybrid board of elected and appointed members.

But that fragile consensus collapsed at the last minute, and the council scrapped the compromise and decided to let Washington voters choose between the mayor's plan, which would allow him to name all the board members, and the council's plan for a fully elected panel.

But some council members worried that the issue could divide a city already sensitive to issues of who is in charge, and that a delay in shaping the school board would only slow improvement in a district plagued by academic and financial trouble.

The question of who runs the public schools in the nation's capital has been up in the air since 1996, when the financial-control board that oversees the city's operations stripped the elected school board of most of its powers.

That arrangement is set to expire in June, and dissatisfaction with the elected board has prompted the recent efforts by Mayor Williams and others to come up with an alternative.

The 'Best Deal Possible'?

The issue came to a head at the council meeting on Feb. 1. After a full day of closed-door meetings and public debate, Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp, with obvious frustration, called the issue "one of the most difficult" in her 10 years on the council. But by the next day, key officials were putting a more positive face on the struggle.

"The mayor has always thought that taking it to the voters was the best deal possible," said the mayor's director of policy, Gregory McCarthy.

"What transpired was the honest give-and-take of negotiation between two branches of government that is part and parcel of democracy," he added. "What came out was what everyone could agree on."

Kevin P. Chavous, the chairman of the council's education committee, said the best solution would have been an agreed- upon plan that the council and mayor could jointly "sell to the voters." But he still had warm words for the outcome.

"Now the citizens will have stark options to consider, and we will clearly get what people feel is best," Mr. Chavous said. "That is a good thing."

But within 24 hours, the chairwoman of the congressionally created financial-control board, which has powerful sway over city affairs, expressed her disapproval, putting a question mark over exactly what would end up on the ballot.

"I don't know where we are, I just don't know where we are," one council aide said.

The council had been prepared to approve a plan that would have reduced the current 11-member elected board to nine members, with five elected and four appointed by Mr. Williams. That plan represented significant compromises both for the mayor, who wanted an even smaller, mayorally appointed board, and the council, which favored an all-elected body.

But a letter from Mr. Williams—delivered to council members the morning of the vote—unraveled the agreement. In the letter, Mr. Williams agreed to the compromise with obvious reluctance, but complained that it served the council's political interests more than the best interests of the school system's 77,000 students.

Stung, council members abandoned the compromise plan. Their draft legislation would place on the November ballot two scenarios: a nine-member, elected board empowered to choose the superintendent, or a five-member board appointed by Mr. Williams, who would also have the power to appoint the superintendent, subject to the council's approval. If neither option won a majority, the current board structure would remain in effect, since any change requires voters to approve an amendment to the District of Columbia's home-rule charter.

A Thorny Path

But the road to November is littered with stumbling blocks. Alice M. Rivlin, the chairwoman of the financial-control board, urged the council and the mayor to reconsider, saying she was worried that the campaign leading to the vote on the competing measures could be politically divisive.

"I think the two choices represent extreme views," Ms. Rivlin, a former top official of the Clinton administration, said late last week. "I think it would be better to have a proposal on the ballot that could have more broadly based support. They had a compromise. A mixed board seemed to me the way to go.

"I hope they will reconsider and come up with a proposal we can all support."

Even if such a compromise is reached, Congress still has the power to strike it down.

The financial-control board has already returned decisionmaking powers to the city government, but with the school governance structure unresolved, it is considered likely that the control board will extend its oversight of the school system through the calendar year.

City leaders had sought a compromise to head off that possibility. They were also mindful of warnings last month by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia, that if they didn't come up with a workable plan, Congress might do so itself.

If the school board becomes an appointed body, it will join a small but growing trend in urban districts, said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. School boards are elected in 96 percent of the nation's 14,700 school districts, she said, but only in 83 percent of urban districts. Boston and Chicago, for example, have mayorally appointed boards.

Both types of boards can be effective as long as they put the students' best interests first and foremost, Ms. Bryant said.

Joshua S. Wyner, the executive director of the DC Appleseed Center, a local advocacy group that is active in school affairs, said the issue need not become a politically destructive one.

"It will only be as divisive as people make it," he said. "There is a substantive decision to make. If we focus on that substance, we can have a healthy debate about what is best for kids in this city."

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Page 3

Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as Compromise Plan For D.C. Governance Stalls
Related Stories
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories





Sponsor Insights

Free Ebook: How to Implement a Coding Program in Schools

Successful Intervention Builds Student Success

Effective Ways to Support Students with Dyslexia

Stop cobbling together your EdTech

Integrate Science and ELA with Informational Text

Can self-efficacy impact growth for ELLs?

Disruptive Tech Integration for Meaningful Learning

Building Community for Social Good

5 Resources on the Power of Interoperability from Unified Edtech

New campaign for UN World Teachers Day

5 Game-Changers in Today’s Digital Learning Platforms

Hiding in Plain Sight - 7 Common Signs of Dyslexia in the Classroom

The research: Reading Benchmark Assessments

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

All Students Are Language Learners: The Imagine Learning Language Advantage™

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

How to Support All Students with Equitable Pathways

2019 K-12 Digital Content Report

3-D Learning & Assessment for K–5 Science

Climate Change, LGBTQ Issues, Politics & Race: Instructional Materials for Teaching Complex Topics

Closing the Science Achievement Gap

Evidence-based Coaching: Key Driver(s) of Scalable Improvement District-Wide

Advancing Literacy with Large Print

Research Sheds New Light on the Reading Brain

Tips for Supporting English Learners Through Personalized Approaches

Response to Intervention Centered on Student Learning

The Nonnegotiable Attributes of Effective Feedback

SEE MORE Insights >