The D.C. City Council and the city's Board of Education are heading for a potentially acrimonious debate over a council proposal to change school board elections to even-numbered years.
The debate is likely to give way to an outpouring of hostilities built up over the years between the city's two locally elected and often competing bodies, which have lived in an uneasy coexistence with major skirmishes and turf fights flaring each year over the school budget.
While the hearings on the measure are not scheduled until July 10, some of the crossfire already has started.
"The change is politically motivated to cripple the board," said school board member John Warren (Ward 6). But council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At-Large) said she does not see anything political in the proposed change.
"It's just a move to consolidate and save money," she said. "But I felt that way when I was on the board. You have a tendency to try to protect yourself when you don't know what people's motives are."
The proposed election change was recommended by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics as a cost-saving move in a package of sweeping election changes proposed for the District. In that package of suggestions, the elections board also had said it wants to get out of the costly business of running the elections for members to political party committees and for delegates to national party conventions.
The elections consolidation idea has been introduced as legislation by council members David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), and referred to the full council instead of to a committee, as is the usual practice, because of the political sensitivity of the proposal.
Even if the change is approved, it would not affect this year's school board elections. If passed, some members of the school board in a future election would be elected for a shorter term, so that eventually all board members could be elected in even-numbered years.
Clarke and other supporters of the change -- including the D.C. League of Women Voters and a separate, ad hoc task force on city elections -- all argue that the current off-year school board elections with low voter turnout only increase voter apathy.
Elections board Chairman Albert J. Beveridge, who championed the review of city elections since his appointment as chairman last year, said the change could save the cash-strapped District government at least $350,000 over four years. With about 280,000 registered voters here, and with current turnout of about 10 percent for school board elections, Beveridge said that it now costs the city $6.25 per voter to conduct the off-year elections.
Beveridge said that with such low turnouts in school board races, Ward 4 and Ward 3, with traditionally high turnouts even in odd-numbered years, can skew the election results in the atlarge races where candidates are elected from throughout the city.
School board members, however, see the change as political, inspired by a council trying to co-opt a competing body. Some board members said that the proposed even-year school board elections -- held at the same time as the city's council and mayoral elections -- would destroy the board's congressionally mandated nonpartisan status. The change also would prohibit board members from running for the council without first giving up their board seats.
"Most members of the council would like to see the board eliminated," said board member Warren. "The board is the most logical place for a council member's next opponent to come from.
In a consolidated even-year election for both the council and the board, Warren said, "The school board would become a second-class citizen to the major race, and big money would control the outcome."
Both Mayor Marion Barry and council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At-Large) first were elected to the City Council when they were members of the school board.
The council and the school board never have gotten along particularly well, usually because of feuding over the school system's annual budget. The council must approve the school control over how the money is spent. The school board, which was an elective body before elections for City Council were established, consistently has accused the council of trying to meddle in school affairs and undercut the board's autonomous status.
Against this backdrop of mutual sniping, both Clarke and the elections board came up with the recommendation to eliminate the odd-year school board elections. The election board proposal was the outgrowth of a six-month-long review of city elections.
"It's a purely political move," said board member Frank Shaffer-Corona (At-Large). "It means that if you run for school board [in an even-numbered year] you can't run for council or for mayor. There is a level of paranoia among certain council members, especially at the ward level, about board members building up a base and then running against them."
School Board member Alaire B. Rieffel (Ward 2) said that the key issue in the debate will be whether the ward-level school board elections will be held in the same year as the same ward-level council election. In Washington, unlike some other cities, school board wards coincide with the council wards.
As for the low voter turnout in current, odd-year school board elections, Rieffel said, "I would rather see a handful of people turn out who have studied the issues and the candidates."
But School Board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8) said that the low turnout results from District residents, who have only been voting for president since 1964, not being accustomed to going to the polls.
At the local level, Lockridge said, he thinks "this is a non-political town. You have to grow into the sophistication of elections."
Some supporters of the change said privately that school board members now prefer the low turnout, odd-year elections, since it is easier to assemble a winning campaign organization.
Another elections board proposal would have the effect of letting the political parties decide the membership and makeup of party committees and who goes to national conventions.
Such a move would strengthen the role of party regulars here. It is expected to be resisted by some who believe that elected officials already are too powerful within the parties, and by others who believe they can fare better at the polls than in closed caucuses or conventions.
"One of the great concerns that we have in D.C. is that this is a one-party town," said Democratic National Committeewoman Sharon Pratt Dixon. "Elected officials already have great control over who sits on the state committee. I don't think its right that they are the final arbiters of who sits on the state committee."