A majority of the D.C. Board of Education wants to remove Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) as president and has called a special meeting tomorrow to oust her, following allegations that Harvey instructed a school employee to work on a personal project for her during regular business hours.
In a written statement, the six school board members said they are determined to "make this leadership change in order to create an effective board to successfully address the needs of our children."
Harvey defended her reputation yesterday in an interview, at times fighting tears.
"Nobody--nobody--is going to deface my character, and nobody is going to deflect my concentration," the 14-year veteran said, swallowing sobs. "I don't care what anybody says--I stand on my record forever, and nobody--nobody--is going to kill my spirit or take away my joy for the work I have done."
The unprecedented attempt to remove a sitting board president comes as the board is working to regain public respect and the power it lost when the D.C. financial control board seized control of the ailing school system 2 1/2 years ago.
The control board is scheduled to return power to the elected board--at 31, the oldest elected governing body in the District--next June 30, and it has worked with Harvey and other members in recent months to start the transition, with mixed results.
The control board is "concerned" about the latest infighting, Executive Director Francis Smith said yesterday. Several parents and school watchdogs questioned whether the board has evolved from the bickering, ineffective body that lost its authority in 1996.
"This makes me nervous," said Alieze Stallworth, a math teacher at Coolidge High School in Northwest Washington, a parent of two D.C. students and a PTA activist. She said she didn't think the board was "concentrating on getting themselves prepared to take over the school system--and that bothers me."
"A lot of people are watching to see what kind of decisions and what kind of policy statements are coming from the board," said D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's education committee.
Those trying to oust Harvey, who has led the school board's fledgling transition back to power, insisted that their actions are necessary if the panel is to do its job.
"Our credibility is critical to a successful transition," said Westy Byrd (Ward 2), a first-year member who last month accused Harvey of assigning personal work to a staff member. "The public knowing that we have high standards . . . is critical."
She and others said their concern with Harvey's leadership goes beyond the alleged misuse of staff resources, which is under investigation by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. They criticized her decision to increase a board employee's salary after the board had approved a lower salary and her request--which the control board denied--for a car and driver for board use earlier this year.
Board member Robert G. Childs (At Large) also accused Harvey of not telling the board that a plan for its transition back to power was being prepared--until she and the control board had finished it.
"My concern is whether or not Wilma can be effective," said Childs, adding that he will listen to any defense that Harvey offers. "I would want to hear her response. But right now, I don't see where it would help."
Harvey denies that she acted improperly in any of the incidents cited by her critics.
Those opposing Harvey include Benjamin Bonham (Ward 6), Tonya Vidal Kinlow (At Large), Don Reeves (Ward 3) and board Vice President Dwight E. Singleton (Ward 4). The division extends to the ongoing transition process, which Harvey's board opponents say she is trying to control.
But Gail Dixon (At Large), a Harvey ally who heads the transition effort, said board members who complain of not being involved have chosen not to participate. She accused Harvey's opponents of waging a petty smear campaign and ignoring "all of the truly consequential matters that we have to deal with."
Stallworth, the parent advocate, said the dissension has sapped her confidence that the board will be ready to lead 11 months from now, regardless of who is at the helm. She said she "has no real feel" for Singleton, who would replace Harvey as president, even though he represents her ward.
Despite her activism, Stallworth--a longtime PTA leader--said she did not vote for anyone in last fall's Ward 4 school board race because she "was probably not as happy with the candidates for that particular position as I could have been."
Such public discontent shows the need for a grass-roots look at how to improve the board, said Josh Wyner, whose D.C. Appleseed Center will try to launch such an effort this fall.
"If we don't start having those conversations, then the school board is going to come back into power without anyone having thought about whether that's the way to good schools," Wyner said. "There's a serious problem, and the public has to start thinking about solving it."
CAPTION: D.C. school board President Wilma R. Harvey denies critics' complaints.