Democratic mayoral candidate John Ray said yesterday that the city should abolish its elected school board unless the board can show substantial improvement in the schools in the next few years.
Ray, an at-large member of the City Council, said the city would be better off turning over control of the schools to a powerful appointed superintendent who could improve test scores and restore order in classrooms without interference from a board that has had trouble in the past agreeing on policies that were best for the students.
"If the present system doesn't work soon, we should change it . . . and hire a superintendent of schools for a four- or five-year term to set policy and make decisions," Ray told a breakfast meeting of about 50 businessmen at Pilgrimage Hall, 14th and Quincy streets NW.
"When you have 11 members of the school board, it's very difficult for them to make policy," Ray added. "We ought to give the new school administration an opportunity to get things in place. At the same time we can't wait around the next 10 to 15 years to get things in place. If it doesn't work in the next four years, we have to look for a new mechanism."
The proposal immediately drew fire from school board members and spokesmen for parents' groups, who described it as an ill-advised attack on self-government that overlooks progress being made by a newly constituted school board and new Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie.
"To suggest abolition of the school board is not only offensive but is a slap in the face to everybody who went through the struggle for elected officials," said Nathaniel Bush (Ward 7), school board vice president.
"It's quite clear that there has been some dissatisfaction with the elected school board," he added, "but I think we've had a remarkable change in personnel in the last four years. There's been a major turnaround in the leadership of the board and of its tone."
William H.L. Brown, president of the D.C. Congress of Parent-Teachers Associations, said Ray is a relative newcomer to Washington Ray moved here in 1967 , who is willing to give up some of the gains made by D.C. residents in the long struggle for home rule.
"I don't know how long Mr. Ray has been in the city, but we worked for years to get our elected school board," Brown said. "What we need to do is find out what the needs of the schools are and provide them, rather than stepping back in the past and abolishing the board."
Paula Roberts, copresident of Parents United for Full Funding, an influential 600-member organization that has lobbied for increased funding for the public schools, said Ray's proposal ignores recent progress made by the new school board and McKenzie.
"This is the wrong time to even propose something like that," Roberts said of Ray's proposal. "The problem with the school system for parents is that the direction keeps changing. We don't let anything work out long enough to see if it can work. We keep changing. When you have good, competent people in office you ought to let them do their job and not talk about taking their power away from them."
Ray outlined his views on the school system during a question-and-answer session that followed a speech to the business group on his proposals for improving city management.
He said that if he determined that the school board had failed to make substantial progress in improving public education, he would seek to abolish the board through an amendment to the city charter. Such an amendment would have to be approved by the city's voters and by Congress.
In his speech, Ray elaborated on his proposed reorganization plan to replace the city administrator with five deputy mayors who would be responsible for public works, public safety, finance and budget, human services, and community development and planning.
He said that City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers' office has become an "unnecessary and damaging extra layer of government."
"The extra layer of the city administrator's office serves only to encourage infighting and cause frustration among department heads who find it nearly impossible to bring their concerns directly to the mayor," Ray said.
Ray also said he supports a four-to-five-year moratorium on increased property assessments to provide some tax relief to D.C. businessmen. Thereafter, annual reassessments should be limited to 10 to 12 percent, he said.
D.C. council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), another Democratic candidate for mayor, made a similar moratorium proposal last year.