AS MY MOTHER would say, "It's a fine state we've come to."
Vince Reed, the superintendent of the city's public schools, who is the hands-down choice of the students, their parents and the administrators, the only man in recent memory who has been able to bring a modicum of stability to our still deeply troubled schools, walking out in frustration from his struggle with the school board.
Have our leaders become so enmeshed in personalities and pettiness that they've forgotten the purpose of their existence? Must the fate of 96,000-plus school children hang in the balance because adults are unable to sit down together to plan and progress in their best interests and that of the community?
Let's be fair, bickering on the school board was not invented by Calvin Lockridge, the current chairman. There is a tradition in many cities with elected school boards for members to serve themselves very well with their board membership. In Washington and cities around the country where there are elected school boards, these bodies often have been stepping stones used by would-be politicians aspiring to higher office. Thus the temptation to use board membership as a stage on which to try to outdo one's fellows in outspokenness and to gather political constituents is irresistible to some. Clearly, others here and elsewhere serve simply in the interest of education.
The question of how one overcomes this state of affairs without taking back the democratic freedoms of the electorate is a tough one. Where do you draw the line between the authority of the school board and the superintendent? Somewhere there has to be a happy medium.
As Vince Reed complains that the board is impending the implementation of his program by interfering with the day-to-day operation of the system, the parents speak. They say they want Vince Reed.They know the schools' turnaround has only just begun, but they are intelligent enough to know that what is happening now was not happening before. They see all too well the signs of big trouble on the broader horizon -- joblessness, a tight housing market, a troubled economy -- and they don't want to see their problems compounded now by having the schools thrown into chaos.
One parent told me Saturday that he signed two petitions -- one to the board to do whatever is necessary to retain Reed, and another to Reed imploring him to reconsider.
"We would rather not go through [a superintendent search] right now," the parent said. "Even if we would come up with the genius of geniuses, most of us feel that we are being divested of a person who has come up with what seems to be working. This stops us in our tracks before we can see whether his program will work, before it even comes to fruition."
That parent raised two good points. An unfinished program would be a personal defeat of sorts for Reed as well as the city. Second, the process of finding another superintendent might so imperil the system that the progress Reed has made could be lost.
For if Reed finds he is really at the point of no return and decides to go, the challenge will be how to turn this tragedy into something positive. What credentials would be needed in another person? Who is the kind of person who can turn the system around?
But the big related question is how much chaos would be inevitable and what effect it would have on the children? If Reed leaves, a vacuum will exist and the remaining administrators likely will not be able to act forcefully to implement his program. A vacuum produces an inevitable looseness, at best a holding pattern. A holding pattern is not an administration, and the day-to-day tautness inevitably will weaken. By the time a search is completed, the system may be back where Reed found it.
Even with Reed's presence, we're still turning out unemployable young people, some of whom can't read or write well enough to find work and a high percentage of the graduates won't go on to college. Those highly motivated ones who do go to college find they have a lot of catching up to do.
Roderick Sallay, a teen who lives in Northeast Washington, is a 1980 graduate of McKinley High School and now a freshman at Northern Illinois University. He told me the other day:
"I think Vince Reed had good policies in mind. He wanted more science and math requirements for graduation. I saw that once I went to college I didn't have the background in science I needed. I had courses I never even heard of like anthropology and theology. I have a lot of catching up to do and I can't really compete. If Reed goes, it will be even worse."
It's hard to find genuine good guys in this drama. Some hats are greyer than others but it is hard to find honest-to-goodness good guys in Black Hats. Still Vince Reed understood that black people here were going to have to go back to basics, to organize what was meaningful for their existence. He knew it was going to take self respect and responsibility.
At a time when all our leaders ought to be enunciating the ideas that will prepare our children to function not only today and tomorrow but in the 21st century, some school board leaders seem not to have stopped to think that if we put our children low on our list of priorities, we are saying that we do not expect a future for any of us.