The embattled D.C. Board of Education ousted longtime member Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) as its president yesterday in a bitter 6 to 5 vote that Harvey immediately denounced as "illegal" and vowed to fight in court.
The unprecedented decision to remove a sitting school board president capped months of growing dissension within the panel, which is preparing to reassume the power it lost 2 1/2 years ago when the D.C. financial control board took over management of the city's troubled public school system.
Unless the vote is reversed, the board will be led for the next 5 1/2 months by Ward 4 representative Dwight E. Singleton, 37, a first-year member who had been vice president and is part of the anti-Harvey coalition. The board elects a new president by majority vote every January.
Harvey's opponents cited numerous reasons for removing the 14-year board veteran as president, including allegations that she asked staff to perform personal errands, withheld information from members, failed to build consensus and did not build respect for the board from other city leaders.
"The city council ignores the board. . . . Everybody's afraid to touch us because right now they don't know whether we will continue to exist," said Robert G. Childs (At Large), who called it "embarrassing" that the schools panel has sent so few policy proposals to the control board.
Harvey and her allies dismissed the criticisms as petty and accused the insurgent board members of conducting a personal vendetta. Citing a letter from Harvey's attorney, they said the board lacked the authority to oust a president because no such procedure is specified in its rules.
"I will not--I will not--resign the position of president of the Board of Education," Harvey said to applause from a small audience of about 20 longtime school activists. "Colleagues, unfortunately, I will see you in court."
Parents and community leaders at the meeting, echoing a concern of Harvey's supporters on the board, said they fear the public infighting will hurt the board's chances of regaining power as scheduled in June.
"This is the most divisive thing they possibly could have done," said Victor Miller, a Wilson High School parent.
"We're under a microscope," said Ward 8 representative William Lockridge. "We're really being tested, and that test could determine whether we remain an elected body."
But Congress and the control board--often the elected school board's strongest critics--maintained an unusual reserve on the subject yesterday.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District, declined to comment. "It's a local matter," a spokesman said.
Control board Executive Director Francis Smith said the panel is "very concerned," but he declined to say whether its members might delay returning power to the school board or permanently alter the governance structure of the school system.
"That kind of discussion at this juncture just wouldn't be constructive," Smith said. "Our goal has always been that there be an effective school board. We're still committed to our plan."
Any discussion of changing the structure of the school board should come from residents, Smith said, perhaps led by the D.C. Council education committee or other elected officials.
Committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who called the board's rift "outrageous," said he will meet with school board members next week and hopes to foster public discussion about the board's role in coming months.
"The public view of this whole thing is, 'This is not about the children's interest; this is about who's in charge,' " Chavous said. "It's going to have a chilling impact on the future of the board."
The six members who voted to oust Harvey said they hoped, instead, that their action would convince the public that they were committed to change.
"We've got a job to do," said Tonya Vidal Kinlow (At Large). "I'm really feeling energized."
But the coalition, operating with a one-vote majority, has its weaknesses. None of its members has experience running a school system. Several of them frequently miss meetings or show up late.
Yesterday, Harvey and her four supporters on the board sat alone on the dais as the clock ticked past the scheduled 8 a.m. start of the meeting. The others were waiting for Childs, who arrived at 8:25 a.m.
"They came in late, ready for the kill," said Terri Greene, a PTA leader at Cardozo High School. "That is not leadership."
The meeting began with an argument over who should chair it, then dragged on for two hours as members debated the removal of Harvey. Finally, the vote was called, with Benjamin Bonham (Ward 6), Westy Byrd (Ward 2), Don Reeves (Ward 3), Childs, Kinlow and Singleton voting "aye."
"This is an illegal vote," Harvey said, standing to leave.
By afternoon, both she and Singleton had issued statements, each claiming to be board president.
CAPTION: Wilma R. Harvey, followed by attorney Paul Strauss, walks out of the room where the D.C. Board of Education voted 6 to 5 to remove her as president.
CAPTION: Wilma R. Harvey talks with attorney Paul Strauss. She told her board colleagues, "I will see you in court."
CAPTION: After the vote, Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) issued a statement claiming to be board president.