School & District Management

District of Columbia Schools Facing Leadership Dilemma

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 31, 2004 6 min read
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Flanked by bookcases filled with faded encyclopedias and rows of Compaq computers in Woodrow Wilson Senior High School’s media center, Mayor Anthony A. Williams made his case.

The District of Columbia’s struggling school system needs to hold one person accountable for turning its too-frequent academic and operational failures into successes, he said. That person, he calmly argued, should be the mayor.

“The schools are in mortal danger,” Mr. Williams told his audience of roughly 80 people last week. “All the leaders in the city have formed firing squads. The only problem is, we’re in a circle.

“I would hire a superintendent that knows more than I do and give them cover.”

So far, however, the Democratic mayor is facing stiff opposition to his plan, announced in February, to take over the 65,000-student district. Members of the school board and the District of Columbia Council have balked. And some Washington residents, who would have to approve the change, are giving a chilly reception to the proposal’s call to greatly diminish the power of the school board.

Time Running Out

Mayor Williams’ plan would give him the authority to appoint a “chancellor of schools” who would be responsible for the budget, policymaking, and operations of the school system. The chancellor would report to the mayor and the council, which approves the system’s budget. The members of the school board would serve as advisers.

No matter which form of school governance the capital city’s political leaders choose, time is running out.

Interim Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie could leave her post as soon as mid-April. The 2000 legislation that established Washington’s hybrid school board of four mayorally appointed members and five elected members expires on June 7. And the job-search timeline calls for a new superintendent to begin work by July 1.

Faced with the possibility of a leaderless school system, the city’s political players are poised to temporarily shelve much of the governance discussion to focus on attracting the best person to run the schools, perhaps giving the new superintendent greater authority in the process.

Some education activists support that move. But others say a clear and final decision about who will steer the school district must be made, because few top-tier candidates would consider the position with the lines of authority as blurred as they are now.

Ms. Massie, in fact, cited the uncertainty over governance as a reason for leaving— as did her predecessor, Paul L. Vance, who quit last November. And earlier this month, the leading candidate to fill the temporary post, James H. Shelton, the program director for education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, pulled his application at the 11th hour.

The turmoil at the top of the District of Columbia schools has more than just political ramifications.

An analysis of the district’s poor test scores, conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, flunked its curriculum and instructional program. The review, released in January, found that the district “has lost its instructional focus” and that “its efforts have become fractured and incoherent.”

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based organization, said that despite the muddy instructional and political waters, some educators would consider applying for the superintendency—they just want to know who their bosses would be first.

"[Washington] has almost got too much political power in too limited a space,” Mr. Casserly pointed out. “Lots of actors are in a position of checkmating the actions of others. And, as a consequence, things often don’t get done.”

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the school board president, argues that the debate about governance won’t dissuade potential schools chiefs from applying.

Members of the District of Columbia Council and the school board, along with the mayor, she said, are in the midst of talks to write a memorandum of understanding that would have all parties weigh in on the selection of the next superintendent. The school board would retain the final authority to hire the schools chief.

Linda W. Cropp, the chairwoman of the council, said the agreement would keep the hybrid board in place and would make the management climate more attractive for a new superintendent.

Ms. Cafritz said that the board had been working on an agreement with Mr. Shelton, the candidate for interim superintendent, that would have given him greater authority, including having the district’s chief financial officer report to him rather than to the mayor. She envisions a similar arrangement for the permanent superintendent.

Void of Leadership?

To some observers, however, Washington’s education climate is untenable.

“The people here are so busy dropping bombs, they’re blowing up the ground they stand on,” charged Kaleem Caire, the project director of the D.C. K-12 Education Initiative for Fight for Children, a Washington-based foundation that advocates school choice.

Iris J. Toyer, the co-chair of Parents United, a local parent-advocacy group, likened the void of educational leadership to a “black hole.”

“What they’re doing may lead us to a [superintendent] who is looking for a notch on their belt,” she said.

Ms. Toyer charged that Mayor Williams—who first took office in 1999 and is now in his second term—has done little for the city’s schools and is instead content to sit on the sidelines, lobbing ideas onto the field. Ms. Cafritz, the board’s elected president, may have her heart in the right place, Ms. Toyer said, but many question her effectiveness.

Ms. Cafritz defended her leadership, noting that most school board votes on significant issues have been unanimous. She argued that the adoption last month of a new code of ethics for board members and a new organizational and governance structure that delineates the responsibilities of the superintendent have already established a more coherent accountability structure.

Some parents who spoke in support of the mayor’s proposal last week at Wilson Senior High nonetheless expressed doubts about Mr. Williams’ commitment to aggressively champion sweeping changes in the schools. They also blasted what they called the “unprofessional” leadership of some school board members—including some of the four handpicked by the mayor.

Although Mayor Williams admitted that he mishandled some of his past appointments, he countered those missteps by touting the city’s 57 percent increase in education funding over the past few years. The current school system budget is roughly $774 million.

To parent Judy Licht, who pointed out the paucity of books and the water-stained ceiling tiles in Wilson’s media center, the governance discussion seemed insignificant.

“Whether it’s a king or a queen or some military thing, ... give schools what they need,” she urged.

Confronted with little political support for his plan, coupled with the damage the indecision may have on the superintendent search, the mayor appears to be softening his stance.

Mr. Williams said he would work alongside the school board, regardless of the outcome of a council vote on his plan. “I can’t say in good conscience that it’s my way or the highway,” the mayor said during the March 22 meeting with parents.

The school system’s lines of authority have long been unclear and unstable, said Walter Smith, the executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center, a Washington-based public- interest organization that recommended reorganizing the board of education in 1999. In addition to the school board, the District of Columbia Council, and the mayor, Washington’s superintendent ultimately must also answer to the U.S. Congress.

Political leaders must collaborate to accomplish their common goal— improving the education opportunities for the city’s children, Mr. Smith said. By sublimating their own interests, the politicians could assure candidates to head the school system that they would get the time and authority to raise student achievement, he said.

“Each of them thinks that if they ran [the school system], they could do a better job,” he said of the city’s politicians. “A lot people believe they could hardly do worse. But they’re never going to get the job done without a superintendent.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at

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