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Board of Education Says Goodbye as Activists Fight for Chance to Save It

By Theola Labbé and Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 7, 2007

With celebration and sadness, the D.C. Board of Education met last night in what is likely to be its final meeting before Mayor Adrian M. Fenty assumes control of city schools.

The meeting sometimes took on a wistful, last-day-of-school tone as a small audience gave the school board a standing ovation and board members took turns reflecting on the past six months, a tumultuous period in which city leaders debated the merits of the board's existence and a shift to mayoral control of city schools.

Fenty is expected to assume oversight of the schools next week, although a group of residents continued yesterday to press their last-minute challenge to the takeover. The legal battle has been playing out in D.C. Superior Court this week, and a ruling could come today.

Last night, board President Robert C. Bobb presented a resolution praising the board's achievements under his leadership during the past six months.

"This board addressed the issues squarely, it addressed the issues aggressively, it addressed the issues thoughtfully and expeditiously, to do all that we could have in five months to support and improve academic achievement," Bobb said.

In a bound report titled "Selected Achievements of the District of Columbia Board of Education 2007," Bobb wrote that the board had set tougher graduation and promotion requirements, moved quickly to make repairs at schools and approved contracts to renovate dilapidated schools.

Several board members said they were disappointed that the board's role will be diminished, but they vowed to commit themselves to working with the mayor as the board is rechristened the D.C. State Board of Education. In that capacity, the panel will oversee such responsibilities as student testing and teacher certification.

"This is not over," board member Tonya Kinlow told her colleagues. "I want us to think of this not as the end, but the beginning of a new opportunity to make things happen."

The mood was upbeat when the board installed two student members, Christine Johnson and Loren Stevens, who posed for photos with the full board and vowed to serve well.

Superintendent Clifford B. Janey told panel members that they had done outstanding work and that his only regret was that the room wasn't full of parents, teachers, students and families for what he called a historic moment.

"I'm proud and fortunate to have worked with this board of education," Janey said.

Bobb said the board will meet next week as the state board after Fenty takes control.

Earlier in the day, Mary Spencer, who has led the effort to force a citywide referendum on the takeover, asked a Superior Court judge to intervene.

Spencer, a grandmother of two D.C. schoolchildren, and the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics had been on the same side for a time after the elections board ruled that the school takeover legislation passed by the D.C. Council was a valid subject for a referendum.

But the elections board reversed itself this week and declared that the mayor's school takeover cannot be the subject of a referendum.

The D.C. attorney general's office was contesting the elections board's original decision and was to have lined up against Spencer and the board yesterday in D.C. Superior Court. But after President Bush signed into effect the relevant change in the District's charter, the elections board's lawyers said the school takeover was no longer a valid subject for a referendum and the court hearing before Judge Lynn Leibovitz was canceled.

But yesterday, after Spencer filed a new challenge, a hearing was convened on short notice, with attorneys for the elections board lined up with attorneys for the District government to argue that the board should not be ordered to issue the official petition forms.

With the change in the charter due to take effect Tuesday, organizers of the referendum effort would need to obtain the signatures of 20,000 registered voters by the end of the day Monday. Collecting that many signatures would have been a considerable feat had the process begun a few days ago. With each day that passes, the task becomes even more daunting, Spencer's attorney told the judge in urging her to act quickly.

The attorney, Matthew S. Watson, argued that the elections board had made its decision to allow the referendum and that the process needed to be allowed to move forward.

But attorneys for the District and for the board argued that the president's signing of the law was an intervening factor that obligated the board to reverse its position.

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