Linda Cropp, a former teacher and one of the few city politicians who sends her children to public schools, became president of the District school board yesterday and pledged to move quickly to choose a new superintendent.
Cropp, who represents Ward 4, said that within a week she will select a board member to head the search for a successor to Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, who is leaving next month to create a consulting group. Outgoing board president R. David Hall (Ward 2) has been in charge of the search; he said he would like to continue in the post.
In a six-minute speech beginning her one-year term, Cropp -- who has been a board member since 1980 -- said the choice of a superintendent "to lead us into a new age of informational technology" is the most important task facing the board.
The board has received 47 applications for the top job in the 87,000-student school system, a small number given the prominence of the position. The application period ended Dec. 31, and the response led several board members to call for an extension of the deadline.
Board secretary Carl Cannon said he will recommend that candidates be sought for another month.
"We probably didn't think out the closing date too clearly," said board member Nate Bush (Ward 7). Most of the board's advertisements seeking candidates ran in newspapers and education journals in early December, leaving little time before the holiday season for word to spread about the opening.
"We may have missed the hiring cycle," said board member Eugene Kinlow (At Large). "It may be necessary to look further."
Many of the last applications to arrive were from within the school system, Cannon said. In addition to Deputy Superintendent Andrew Jenkins, who has support from a few board members, at least two of the system's regional superintendents and several other top administrators are reportedly among the applicants.
There are no "major names" or big-city superintendents among the candidates, according to two persons who have gone through the resumes.
With several of the nation's larg- est cities looking for superintendents at the same time, the pool of candidates may be limited.
McKenzie's replacement will face a system that, despite some improvements in elementary school performance, remains plagued by a high dropout rate and sub-par secondary school achievement. The difficulty of the task and the $85,000 limit on the superintendent's annual salary are among the deterrents some potential applicants have cited.
But the high visibility of the District and the relatively small size of the school system are likely to draw good candidates, Hall said.
Cropp said she does not know if the applicant pool is strong enough.
"We're still on target for getting this process finished by April," she said.
The board has no plan to select an acting or interim superintendent. In his original timetable for choosing a new chief, Hall said McKenzie and the successor would have several months to work together.
But McKenzie notified the board in a letter last fall that she will leave office at the end of February. McKenzie will then become superintendent on leave, a status she will hold through May, Hall said. McKenzie will receive her full salary through the spring, although she will not perform her regular duties during that time.
Hall said he has no problem with that arrangement, which will allow McKenzie to use up accumulated leave and to qualify for a larger pension.
"If we need her back, all it takes is a phone call and she'll be back," he said. "After all, we're paying her salary."
Hall said there is no need to appoint an interim superintendent because "if you look at her track record, she has not been present a lot. And the school system runs without her."
But some board members want to spell out who will be in charge until a superintendent is chosen.
"We don't want to do anything that confuses accountability," Kinlow said. He wants the board to specify McKenzie's role after February.
"Someone is going to have to be given day-to-day responsibility, and that person needs some autonomy," Bush said.
Deputy Superintendent Jenkins takes McKenzie's place when she is away. Some board members have criticized McKenzie throughout her tenure for spending a lot of time out of town, generally giving lectures or fulfilling her duties as a director of the National Geographic Society, George Washington University and other educational groups.
Although McKenzie remained on the job through the holidays, in part to allow some of her top aides to take time off, she has often been away from her office in recent weeks. For the first time in several years, she has missed school board meetings, allowing Jenkins to represent her.
And McKenzie has for the first time declined the board's invitation to attend its annual retreat, to be held the last weekend of this month. Janis Cromer, McKenzie's longtime spokeswoman and close aide, who left the school system last month, said the retreat conflicts with other commitments the superintendent had made.
Cropp, 40, is a former social studies teacher and guidance counselor. She is married to Dwight Cropp, the District's director of intergovernmental affairs and a close aide to Mayor Marion Barry. Their children, Allison and Christopher, attend Wilson High School and Alice Deal Junior High School, respectively. Both schools are in Ward 3, across Rock Creek Park from Cropp's home ward. The school system gives parents leeway in selecting their children's schools.
As the board's vice president for the past three years, Cropp has worked closely with Hall, and she spoke highly of the tight rein he had on board meetings.
"We have come a long way from the days of instability, negative newspaper headlines and lowered test scores," Cropp said. She praised McKenzie and the board for creating a more peaceful environment, both politically and in the schools. And she criticized the news media for "highlighting schools' problems," saying that those problems are not created by the schools but reflect society at large.
Cropp said her primary goal for the system is to develop a curriculum for teaching "the values of our mothers and fathers" because "we are in danger of losing a significant portion of our young population to ignorance, crime and disease."
She said she also will pursue her proposal to require uniforms at elementary schools to minimize pressure on pupils to spend lots of money on the latest fashions.
The board's unanimous vote for Cropp followed weeks of behind-the-scenes politicking, pitting her against Bush. The board president, who is paid $26,211 a year -- $2,000 more than her colleagues -- runs board meetings, selects committee chairmen and sets the board's agenda.
"I am a bit disappointed," Bush said yesterday, "but I think Mrs. Cropp will do a fine job."
At its organizational meeting at McKinley High School, the board also elected member Wanda Washburn (Ward 3) as vice president and welcomed its one new member, Angie Corley (Ward 5).
Corley, who was a guidance counselor at McKinley for 15 years, defeated longtime member Bettie Benjamin and two other candidates in November. Corley had to resign from her job at McKinley last month to comply with a D.C. law that bars employes from holding two city positions.
"The top of my agenda on the board is to look at what is causing young people to leave high school before graduation," she said.
Board members Cropp, Bush, Kinlow, Wilma Harvey (Ward 1) and Bob Boyd (Ward 6), all of whom were reelected last fall, were sworn in to new terms.