School & District Management

First Elected President Chosen For D.C. Board

By Karla Scoon Reid — November 15, 2000 6 min read

Voters in the District of Columbia swept all but two school board incumbents out of office on Election Day, clearing the way for a transformation of school leadership in the nation’s capital.

The elections marked the second step in a major change for the board. In a special election last June, Washington voters approved a plan to decrease the board’s size from 11 elected members to nine members, four of whom will be appointed by the mayor.

Six of the incumbents sought another term, including the president, the Rev. Robert G. Childs. But he was defeated by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, an influential arts activist and a co- founder of the city’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Ms. Cafritz, who won 53 percent of the vote, will be the city’s first elected board president.

“The mandate from the voters is that they want change,” Ms. Cafritz said last week. Ms. Cafritz, who was endorsed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, won the board’s only at-large post.

Elsewhere in the nation, voters in Englewood, N.J., approved a ballot measure that wrests control of the local school board from the mayor in favor of an elected board. And an incumbent board member in San Diego who was targeted for defeat by the business community hung on to her seat.

Voters also supported millions of dollars in renovations and construction for schools in California, Connecticut, Colorado, and North Carolina.

‘Disgusted With Fighting’

The District of Columbia board will regain full control of the school system in January, when the new members take office. A federally appointed financial- control board, which oversees much of the city government’s operations, declared the district in crisis in 1996 and stripped the elected board of most powers.

Tommy Wells, who defeated three incumbents for a seat on the board, said the public wants to see a cohesive leadership team to serve the city’s 72,000 students.

“People were disgusted with the fighting among school board members,” said Mr. Wells, the executive director of the Consortium for Child Welfare, a Washington-based group.

Mayor Williams was preparing to complete the last phase of the board’s takeover this week. Michele Seligman, the mayor’s senior education policy adviser, said Mr. Williams was reviewing a list of 23 possible candidates for the appointed board positions.

The District of Columbia Council is scheduled to discuss the confirmation of Mr. Williams’ board selections on Nov. 20.

Power Curbed

While the governance changes in the nation’s capital give its mayor new influence over the schools, voters in Englewood, N.J., approved a measure to stop their mayor from appointing board members.

The seven-member appointed board will be replaced by a nine-member elected one. An election will be held early next year to add two new elected board members. Appointed board members will be replaced as their terms end, beginning in April.

The measure pitted residents against one another in the diverse community, which includes both affluent and poor neighborhoods. Parents who send their children to private and religious schools joined efforts with public school parents to secure the right to elect the board. Many said they wanted to see more significant improvement in the district’s low test scores.

Although a small group of parents led the effort publicly, opponents of the measure, including Mayor Paul T. Fader, charged that wealthy residents had bankrolled and engineered the campaign.

The measure also sparked debates about race, with opponents arguing that at an elected board would not fairly represent minorities. The 2,700-student district is about 97 percent minority. In contrast, about 55 percent of the city’s 30,000 residents are members of minority groups.

Idelma Diaz O’Rourke, who helped found Concerned Residents of Englewood to lobby for the change, described the supporters of the elected board as “amateurs.” Still, she acknowledged that some well-to-do residents had donated money to support the $28,000 campaign.

Mayor Fader argued that the elected board would further politicize the school system, but he said he was not surprised by the election’s outcome.

“This is one of the most difficult messages to get across,” he said. “Saying to people, ‘Don’t vote.’ ”

In a hotly contested school board race in California, Frances O’Neill Zimmerman said San Diego voters sent that city’s business leaders a strong message by re-electing her after an expensive effort by a coalition of top business leaders to defeat her.

“The public is really fed up,” said Ms. Zimmerman, who defeated lawyer Julie P. Dubick with 51 percent of the vote. “They just don’t want rich guys messing with our public schools.”

Ms. Zimmerman, an outspoken critic of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, was the target of a political action committee that paid for a television advertisement that questioned the board member’s education priorities.

While the Partnership for Student Achievement denied that the ad was political, business leaders donated about $500,000 to the effort. The group said the ad was a sign of support for Mr. Bersin’s back-to-basics reform plan for the 141,000-student district. Ms. Zimmerman claimed that the ad was an attempt to secure a fourth board vote needed to close large real estate deals.

The San Diego Education Association and the California Teachers Association, both affiliates of the National Education Association, pumped more than $100,000 into an independent campaign to support Ms. Zimmerman.

Marc Knapp, the president of the local teachers’ union, said it was unusual for the union to spend that much money on a school board race. But the teachers’ group believed a strong board member was being unfairly criticized, said Mr. Knapp, who estimated that more than $1 million was spent on just Ms. Zimmerman’s race.

“What are the bigger races going to be worth?” he said. “It’s very scary.”

Bonds Approved

Some districts around the country, meanwhile, will be building new schools and repairing aging facilities thanks to voter support for multimillion-dollar bond issues.

In Hartford, Conn., voters overwhelmingly approved a 12-year, $825 million capital-improvement plan that will renovate each of the 25,000-student district’s 22 buildings. The measure passed by a 6 to 1 margin.

Enrollment in Douglas County, Colo., has almost tripled in the past decade, from 13,000 students to 35,000 this year, forcing the district to ask voters to approve a $178.2 million bond issue to keep pace with the growth. With little organized opposition, the district— located between Denver and Colorado Springs—won support from 61 percent of voters to build 10 new schools and renovate nine others.

In California, the 8,200 students enrolled in the San Mateo Union High School District will see their old schools repaired and upgraded. It took three tries at the polls for the district to get support for renovations to its six schools. The district’s $137.5 million bond issue drew the backing of 72 percent of voters.

Enlisting former school bond opponents in the latest campaign for school construction dollars in Wake County, N.C., paid off. The 98,000-student district’s $500 million bond referendum passed with 78 percent of the vote. The difference: This year’s measure does not require a tax hike.

Decatur, Ill., which captured the spotlight last year when the board initially suspended six students for two years for fighting, was dealt a financial blow.

The 11,000- student district’s attempt to raise real estate taxes to reduce a $10 million debt and maintain current programs failed. About 55 percent of voters rejected the measure, which would have increased school funding by up to $9 million annually.

“It isn’t like anybody is against us doing these things,” said Robert E. Byrkit, the director of special programs. “They just don’t want to pay for it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as First Elected President Chosen For D.C. Board

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