D.C. School Board to Become 'An Independent Voice' Again

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's education reforms last year took the D.C. public schools out of the hands of the school board and put them under his control.

The board had been a powerful institution that ran the schools, provided oversight and added the word "state" to its name. Last year, oversight of the schools was placed in the hands of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who was appointed by Fenty (D). The board spent much of the past year carving out a new role, setting educational standards rather than policy.

Members have adapted. All but one are running in November's election. They say they are pleased with the work they have accomplished in the past year and relieved at shedding other responsibilities.

"We used to spend an inordinate amount of time" approving the budget, said Ted Trabue, one of the two appointed board members. "We don't do that any more."

He added: "We used to fight about purchasing buses, the reconstruction of ballfields. None of that, in my view, had to do with what went on inside the classroom."

Instead, the board spent the year working on standards for teacher quality, health and art education and home-schooling.

More changes are in store. The board had been made up of five elected members and four mayoral appointees. It is returning to an all-elected board of nine members, one from each ward and one at-large member. Some members say that means a stronger counterweight to the mayor's control.

"I think it's really important that we remain an independent voice," said Lisa Raymond, the elected board member from wards 5 and 6, who will run in Ward 6 in the fall. "For right now, except for the city council, the board is the only body that is holding hearings in a formal way."

Not all the members are sure that the switch to an elected board is an improvement. Although the board might have more independence from the mayor, some say it could create a false sense of promise and confusion.

Board President Robert C. Bobb said he thinks an elected board suggests a level of autonomy and accountability that is not there.

"My own view is that it should be an appointed board and not an elected board," he said. "It would eliminate some of the confusion . . . Those who are elected to the state board, their constituency still believes that they have some authority over local schools, which they don't." Most other state school boards are appointed, not elected, he said. Bobb opposed the switch to the state board last year, but "that deck has been cleared," he said. "One moves on."

When constituents came to their board member with complaints in the past, the board was able to address problems directly. Now, constituents are referred to someone in the school system. Bobb said the chancellor's office has been responsive to problems he had passed along.

Among the biggest challenges for the coming school year will be setting standards for early-childhood education, language classes and parental involvement, Bobb said.

The deadline to file for candidacy in the election is Wednesday. So far, five of the current members -- Trabue, Mary Lord, Laura Slover, Sekou Biddle and Lisa Raymond -- will run unopposed. William Lockridge might have a challenger in Ward 8. Wards 1 and 5 are the most contested races, with no incumbent and several possible candidates in each.

Bobb said he hasn't decided whether he will seek reelection. If he does, it would be against Trabue, who is running for the at-large seat.

"Competition makes us all stronger," Bobb said.

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