Bobb, Laying Out Bold Plan, Says He Will Fight a Mayoral Takeover

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

One day after his election as president of the D.C. Board of Education, former city administrator Robert C. Bobb yesterday outlined an aggressive plan for boosting student achievement and indicated he will strongly oppose a possible effort by Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty to seize control of the schools.

Like Fenty, Bobb said a "sense of urgency" is needed among school leaders to address such intractable problems as low student achievement, declining enrollment and deteriorating buildings. When asked whether he would agree to make the school board an all-appointed advisory panel, as Fenty is considering, Bobb said: "No, absolutely not."

"I didn't spend all this time, effort and energy running for president of the school board to head the school system here in the District of Columbia as an advisory board member," he added.

Bobb went on the offensive, saying his ideas are focused on student performance and boosting the reputation of the moribund school board, not on changing the governance.

By early January, he plans to propose programs designed to improve the cognitive development of children from birth to age 5; boost literacy among students and parents; and restore public confidence in the school board. In doing so, Bobb might end up going head-to-head with Fenty in a battle over competing plans. Fenty also has said he will release his plan for the schools by January, but he has shared few details about it.

"I have a specific plan on how to get from Point A to Point B," Bobb said. "Mr. Fenty doesn't."

Bobb blamed a "leadership vacuum" on the school board for opening the door for discussion of a mayoral takeover.

More than 15,000 students have departed from traditional public schools to public charter schools, and 118 of 146 schools failed this year to meet academic targets. Improving the school system was a key issue for all the candidates for mayor, D.C. Council and school board.

Bobb, who has more than 30 years' experience managing city governments, including those of Richmond and Santa Ana, Calif., is attempting to raise the profile of the school board president. Rather than merely leading the board in approving policies from the school administration, Bobb is seeking to advance his own proposals.

"With the skills and ability that he brings, we hope the mistakes of the past can be eliminated and [board members] can work together to ensure our children will receive a quality education," said Darlene Allen, president of the citywide PTA.

Yesterday, Bobb visited the D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School in Columbia Heights, which he said inspired his education ideas. Bobb said he wants to replicate the program, which enrolls 172 students in pre-kindergarten through second grade.

He stepped into a second-grade classroom where students in an after-school program were sitting in front of laptop computers, learning how to use search engines, and observed a nursery where teachers were playing with infants. "We need to build a strong foundation for the children on the front end before they enter kindergarten," he said.

Bobb wants to introduce a citywide early learning program aimed at preparing children from birth to age 5 for school. The program would begin with getting city agencies, such as the Health Department, to ensure that pregnant women and new mothers and their babies are receiving proper care.

The schools, like D.C. Bilingual, would become community centers for the early learning programs and offer after-school programs for students up to age 18 and health services and job training for parents.

"If families are strong and parents are able to support their children, that will have an impact on how well the children will be able to do in school," said Beatriz Otero, president and chief executive of CentroNía, an organization that operates the charter school.

As with the recent crime emergency, Bobb said the city should declare a "reading emergency" to deal with the high illiteracy rate.

He wants city officials to find a way for Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to reduce the 15-year timetable for repairing the schools to seven to 10 years. Bobb also said he would seek to restore confidence in the board by requiring that it conduct more of its business in public.

"If it's a private, closed meeting, we need to notify the public and say what's on the agenda, and when it's over, say what happened," he said.

Board members who take office in January will serve for two years. A law that gave Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) temporary power to appoint four of the nine board members will expire in 2008; the board is then scheduled to become an all-elected body.

Given the short time frame, Bobb said he wants to push city and school officials to move quickly on school reforms.

"My mind is rushing so much," he said. "I just think we have to create a sense of urgency in the District of Columbia. It will require an all-out effort from all of us."

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