Board Might Be Stripped of Some Roles

Mary Landrieu and Clifford B. Janey
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who drafted the measure in consultation with school board and council members, wants a clear separation of roles. Schools chief Clifford B. Janey has tried to accomplish that but says the rules should also apply to other city agencies with similar conflicts of interest. (File Photos)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006

A U.S. Senate committee has approved legislation that would require the D.C. school board to relinquish its state-level functions, including its handling of millions of dollars in federal funds and its oversight of reform efforts for low-performing schools.

The measure's sponsor said she was partly motivated by an April federal declaration that the school system was at "high risk" of mismanaging funds.

The measure calls for the school board, the D.C. Council and the mayor to work together to develop and pass legislation that would transfer those functions to another entity -- a new authority or perhaps an existing agency such as the State Education Office, which is under the mayor's office.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday added the provision to the D.C. spending bill for fiscal 2007, which is scheduled to reach the Senate floor this fall. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and several board members are backing the idea.

Unlike other systems across the country, the D.C. school system operates as both a local and a state education agency. Both roles are overseen by the school board and Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and involve many of the same administrators.

As a state agency, the board funnels $120 million a year in federal funds to its schools, develops learning standards, oversees teacher certification, sets the proficiency levels that students must attain under the federal No Child Left Behind law and determines the intervention needed for schools failing to reach those benchmarks, among other responsibilities.

Supporters of the Senate measure say the board and the superintendent essentially are regulating themselves under the current arrangement, a conflict of interest. They contend that school officials can't be objective in determining, for example, the consequences their low-performing schools should face.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who drafted the measure in consultation with school board and council members, pointed to the "high-risk" designation among reasons for the move. The department cited such deficiencies as lack of timely audits and poor record-keeping. The only other places that have received the high-risk designation are Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.

"In every other jurisdiction in America, we have a state board and local school districts," said Landrieu, a member of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee. "We want them to come up with legislation to clearly separate" those roles, she said.

But in a school system in which the superintendent answers to the school board, the council, the mayor and Congress, some wonder whether creating another authority would add to the problem of fractured governance.

"If it results in more bureaucracy and more layers of agencies for the system to report to, this will make the work of the district harder and not easier," said Michael D. Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization that represents large, urban school systems. "A conversation that adds to the levels of distrust and bureaucratic isolation will probably not help."

A 1999 study of the school system's governance structure by the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice expressed caution about establishing a separate agency to perform state-level functions. State education agencies, it said, sometimes "create problems" by issuing unnecessary mandates that cost schools time and money.

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