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Williams Softening Schools Proposal

Mayor Would Cede Some Policymaking

By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page C01

Mayor Anthony A. Williams is reworking his plan to take control of the D.C. school system in an effort to generate more support among council members who rejected an earlier version of the proposal last week.

According to his aides, Williams (D) now wants to create a school board that would handle matters normally overseen by state boards of education while still giving himself direct control of the 64,200-student school system.

Mayor Williams still wants to select superintendent.

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The new proposal is similar to the measure rejected by the D.C. Council in that it would grant the mayor the power to hire and fire the superintendent. But unlike the earlier plan, which would have made the school board advisory, the new proposal would give some power to elected board members.

Kelvin J. Robinson, the mayor's chief of staff, said the new plan would establish a "state board of education" that would include elected and appointed members who would set broad policy over issues, such as teacher certification and the minimum number of credits needed for graduation. Those policies would apply to all public schools in the city, including charter schools, and mirror the duties of state boards of education.

The school board would lose its local powers, which include crafting budgets and setting systemwide policies.

The new proposal is designed to address the concerns of council members who rejected the mayor's plan Tuesday in a 9 to 4 vote. That plan would have preserved an elected school board but stripped all of its power, making it an advisory body to the mayor.

The mayor and his staff plan to meet with council members and may make slight adjustments to attract more support, officials said.

"We're going to shop the proposal and see if the way that this is now crafted will address the concerns that were raised," Robinson said. "I have a lot of members who voted no saying they're intrigued by the idea."

Several council members who voted Tuesday against the mayor's plan said they would be willing to consider the latest proposal.

Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who chairs the council's education committee, said he wanted to talk to the mayor and his staff before making up his mind. However, he said the council was wary of the ongoing debate about school oversight that is needed to bring resolution to the issue.

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he, too, would need to hear and examine details from the mayor before reaching a decision.

"At some point we've got to bring closure to all of this," Graham said. "Here we are just a couple of days after we made a decision, and here's a radically different state board of education."

Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said he would consider the new plan only if there were a hearing to discuss its merits.

"I wouldn't say I'm favorably inclined," Fenty said. "Probably the opposite. I just don't think that this mayor can focus on education issues long enough to make a difference."

The mayor has argued that he needs to control the school system to bring significant improvement and clarify who is accountable for its results. The school system's test scores are among the lowest in the nation, classrooms are crumbling and administrators have been criticized for wasting millions of dollars.

Some parent activists and council members who opposed the mayor's plan have said that Williams has done a poor job overseeing city agencies that deal with children and that he would do a poor job handling the schools. They also say he has failed to use the power he already has to bring improvement to the school system.

On May 4, the council is expected to take a final vote on a measure it approved 11 to 2 after rejecting the mayor's plan. That legislation would make the school board an all-elected body after 2006 and would preserve its power to hire and fire the superintendent and set policy. The mayor's latest proposal could be considered as a substitute amendment at that meeting.

Under the current structure, the D.C. school board -- made up of five elected members and four appointed by the mayor -- functions as both a state school board and a local school board. The board holds separate meetings to handle local issues and matters that would otherwise be handled by a state board.

The mayor's proposal would shift responsibility for local policymaking to the schools chief, whose title would be "chancellor."

State-level policy would be set by the school board, which would include an elected representative from each of the city's eight wards. It also would include two mayoral appointees, the mayor, council chairman and chairman of the council's education committee, Robinson said.

The schools chief would appoint people from each of the city's wards to handle parents' complaints. Some opponents of the mayor's original plan raised concerns that parental complaints could go unheard if the school board were stripped of its power. Robinson said creation of the new positions would address those concerns.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company