It seemed just like the bad old days: There on center stage, with wisecracking school activists and a wary superintendent watching on the sidelines, the D.C. Board of Education was waging a loud public battle--not over curriculum or test scores or teacher salaries but over who should be board president.
But this wasn't a scene from years past, when the school board was perhaps best known for meetings at which members hurled insults and actual objects at one another. This was Thursday, and the board majority's removal of Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) as school board president wasn't just another petty fight.
At a time when the board is on the final lap of a long road to regaining the power it lost 2 1/2 years ago to run the 71,000-student school system, the latest acrimony has sharpened concerns about the panel--and whether it will be up to the task of managing the city's troubled schools by the time its authority is restored in June 2000.
Many activists hope Harvey's ouster will lead to a school board that can work more productively with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. But some warn that the powerful D.C. financial control board, the presidentially appointed panel that stripped the school board of its powers in the first place, has not done enough to fix the school system's governing structure or prepare the school board to take over.
"For 30 years, District citizens have been pretty unhappy with the performance of the school board. Nobody ever says anything nice about it," said Mary Levy, counsel for the education advocacy group Parents United. "But unfortunately, the control board came in and made things worse. They took power away from the school board without asking the people who pay for it, and now they are getting ready to hand it back without any input or major change in the way it operates."
Other activists said the school board's failure to resolve its problems with Harvey behind closed doors proves that the panel cannot function. Some suggest electing members at large, rather than by wards; others say mayoral appointees would help. Still others want the board abolished.
"The whole thing is a big mess," Leroy Thorpe, a longtime advisory neighborhood commissioner, said of the 6 to 5 vote to oust Harvey over allegations of poor ethics and leadership. "I think it's time to think about doing away with the school board entirely."
Maudine R. Cooper, chairman of the trustees panel that the control board set up in 1996 to help run the school system, said city leaders should be considering the best format for a quality education program. "I know right now, with the existing structure, it does not seem to be working," she said.
A broad-based panel spearheaded by the nonprofit D.C. Appleseed Center is researching how effective school boards work and plans to issue a report in the fall to spark a citywide discussion on school governance.
Experts say the problems that have afflicted the D.C. school board are common to other urban school panels but seem worse here. They include infighting, micromanaging superintendents, failing to address important issues or provide adequate oversight, and using board membership as a steppingstone to higher office.
The D.C. board has 11 members, though national studies show that smaller boards are more effective. Experts say that electing most of the panel's members by wards virtually institutionalizes factionalism. And although most other boards operate as a full body, the D.C. panel operates on a committee system--with its members spread out over nine committees.
Some big cities, including Detroit and Cleveland, have moved to appointed boards in recent years. In Boston, voters two years ago rejected a return to an elected board. In other cities, such as Chicago, the mayor has become involved in school system governance, although there is no proof that such direct involvement helps, according to Michael Usdan, president of the D.C.-based Institute for Educational Leadership.
The school board, which more than 30 years ago was the District's first locally elected institution, has been largely irrelevant since November 1996. That's when the control board declared a crisis in the schools, fired the superintendent, Franklin L. Smith, and appointed the trustees.
Control board officials say their intent was to help the school board reform itself. They knew, they said, that the takeover was viewed in the city with such animosity that there would be no public support for tampering with the board's structure.
Instead, the control board has touted a detailed transition plan--penned with input from Harvey and now under attack by the school board majority--that leads school board members through a series of self-examinations in which they approve new roles, responsibilities, ethics policies and board regulations.
"It was our view that we were making progress," control board Executive Director Francis Smith said last week. "We're just asking them to transform themselves, and that's never an easy process. There's bound to be some challenges when you do that."
But some school advocates say the control board should have done more.
"After having excluded [school board members] from information and from participation, why is anybody surprised that not much has changed?" Levy said.
Jim Ford, a former D.C. Council education aide and a longtime school board critic who now advises charter schools, said there should have been finite criteria for restoration of power to the board "so the citizens and the school board itself would know what needed to be done."
The control board, he said, "didn't do that, and as a consequence, the whole thing is deteriorating into a political process. It is about control, which is unfortunately the theme that has characterized the school system for years. And right now, no matter how it gets resolved, it's going to be a mess."
If there was hesitancy then to change the governing structure, the control board seems even more reluctant now. In 1996, the panel was led by Andrew F. Brimmer, who was perceived by many as being quick to trample on home rule rights. Chairman Alice M. Rivlin, who has said that restoring home rule is one of her major goals, seems less willing to intervene in the city's business.
Brimmer pushed the board to hire as superintendent former Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., who left after 17 1/2 months and few improvements. Ackerman took over in May 1998, quickly slashing the number of administrators and launching efforts to try to improve student scores and revamp dysfunctional personnel and special-education divisions. But many initiatives are incomplete, and critics call her dictatorial.
One of Ackerman's problems is that she works under the most cumbersome system of school governance in the United States. Other superintendents answer to a school board and a state education agency; she faces five bodies: Congress, the control board, the D.C. Council, the trustees panel and the school board.
She is negotiating with the control board for a raise and safeguards against dismissal by the school board, which will have the authority to fire her when it regains power. Her relations with the board under Harvey were rancorous. Some members publicly attacked her, saying they felt left out. Ackerman questioned whether she could trust the board, especially after some members privately pledged to support her school-funding initiative, then publicly criticized it.
Last week's removal of Harvey is, in the short run, good news for Ackerman. She has built good relations with several members of the new ruling coalition. And the new president, Dwight E. Singleton (Ward 4), has publicly supported her. But whether it will result in a permanent change is unclear.
After the panel lost its power, consultant Harriet Tyson gave members this advice: Although you don't have any official power, act like you do. "Unfortunately," the former Montgomery County school board president said, "they didn't."
The school board failed to take policy positions on major issues, continued to squabble and did not excel at its single job: opening and monitoring charter schools. To many, last week's fight only extended the board's troubled history.
But others say the board has a dilemma: If members don't do something to try to change the operating style, then they aren't doing their jobs. If they do something, they're perceived as squabbling.
Many advocates are loath to question the board. They fervently want the schools run by elected officials and fear that any criticism will delay a return of power.
"Any kind of controversy like this works against the re-empowerment of a citizen school board," said Larry Gray, legislative chairman of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers.
"It's unfortunate that they don't have either good leadership or cohesion," said Levy, who sees the next few months as critical. "If this turns out to bring about a board that is organized and invigorated and starts taking responsible initiatives, then it will be a good thing. If not, well, at least we know we really have a problem."