The D.C. School Board goes through more hassles to elect a president than the House of Representatives does to choose a speaker, or the College of Cardinals to select a pope.
The 11-member board sat through 12 ballots of identical 4-4-3 votes and six hours of frustration last week before it adjourned in hopeless indecision and decided to try again this week.
Improving the public school system, for which the board sets policy, is one of the most urgent problems in this city. Each of the three factions on the board represents a different philosphy. One group supports a "back-to-basics" approach, another group supports a "more innovative" approach while the third group has other education ideas and supports a "Mayor Marion Barry" approach. He supports them.
The president of the board will get to appoint committee chairmen and also be more prominent. So, there are good reasons for an earnest rivalry for the position.
But 12 ballots seems a bit too much for a school board. Weightier issues are decided by loftier aggregates in far less time. But those groups are not made up of local officials in the government of the District of Columbia, and that gets to the point of this column.
Official local Washington is a self-important world. Try to take away the traditional perks of office in the name of good government, thrift, progress or law and order, and you are almost certain to have one heckuva fight on your hands.
Blame it on Washington -- official Washington, that is, not the District of Columbia. Local officials appear to take their cue from the pomp, protocol and pretentiousness of a status drunk capital city whose very reputation for aloofness from reality helped get Jimmy Carter elected president in 1976.
The attitude is: Congress does it.The president does it. The appointed government did it. Why shouldn't we?
So, City Council members drive cars with license tags which broadcast their titles, or they are chauffeured to and fro in city-owned sedans as if they were diplomats en route to official rendezvous.
Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, when he represented Ward 4, proposed that Council members be called senators; the council chairman lieutenant governor, and the mayor governor.
Don't look for a bunch of ward heelers or ombudsmen on this Council. Many prefer to view themselves as "legislators." One council member once said privately that he would prefer for his constituents to learn to make their own inquiries about problems with city services so he could spend more time on his legislative duties.
The mayor's office is no different. The Barry administration spent nearly $70,000 to refurbish its offices in the District Building. Much of the money was spent on new furniture. The mayor's conference room, formerly decorated in dingy bureaucratic blue, was redone in new-breed beige, burnt orange and a chrome decor with name plates for each department head to sit behind at meetings of the mayor's "cabinet."
Late last year when reporters raised questions about the circumstances surrounding the mayor's purchase of a new $125,000 home, Mrs. Barry, the District's First Lady, said such controversy could have been avoided if there was a city-owned residence for the mayor -- like Gracie Mansion in New York City.
In 1976, then director of human resources Joseph P. Yeldell spent $8,470 in federal grants for maternity and child care to lease two cars equipped with air conditioning, deluxe wheel covers and AM-FM radios for his and his central office staff's use.
"I'm running a department of 10,000 people and spending $400 million a year and somebody's going to quibble about my having a car assigned to me," Yeldell was quoted as responding at the time. "Anybody of cabinet rank ought to have a car assigned to him," he said.
Like most things political in the District of Columbia, the "way-it's-always-been" philosophy has a racial aspect to it.Many of the major controversies involving public officials since "home rule" have stemmed from the insistence by blacks who recently came to power that they not be criticized for doing what whites in city government had done earlier.
Few people have expressed the thinking of many segments of black Washington on this point as clearly Yeldell, a native son who climbed to the top the hard way.
When, for example, Yeldell was accused in published reports of improperly using his position to obtain jobs for friends and relatives in city government, he based his public defense on what had been the status quo and the right of any "major leader" to choose his own team.
"Jimmy Carter is setting up his team right now . . ." Yeldell said. "He is cranking into his talent bank both new friends, and old friends and other peoples' friends." Yeldell ticked off numerous instances where he said whites in city government had relatives on the payroll. But, Yeldell said, no one raised the issues of nepotism and cronyism then.
The only reason the issues were being brought up in his case, Yeldell said, was because of a "continuing attack upon the integrity and competence of black leadership in the District of Columbia."
And late last year, when Barry first accepted a $100,000 mortgage at a discount rate and then gave up the discount when newspapers discovered the preferential treatment, many blacks criticized his decision to relinquish the favor. Other politicians -- whites who they would not name -- had received similar favors, they said. If Barry was going to get the mayor's job, why should he not get all of the fringe benefits that go with it?
There is nothing in the home rule charter that requires the school board to elect a president promptly or City Council members to drive their own cars and have six-digit licenses like everyone else or the mayor to conduct his cabinet meetings in a room with dirty blue chairs. And there is apparently nothing that requires the mayor to pay the going rate on his mortgage.
But with pupils in the city school system scoring below the national average on standardized tests, tuberculosis going unchecked because of a lack of funds, 8,000 people on the public housing waiting list and poor people in Ivy City feeling there's no reason for them to vote, it would seem the perks of power would have a slightly lower priority.