D.C. public school administrators appear likely to retake control of the school at the Oak Hill Youth Center, home to about 120 District youths convicted of crimes or awaiting trial, sooner than expected.
A District appeals court ruled yesterday that a D.C. Superior Court judge went too far in September 1998 when he stripped authority over the school from the D.C. government and the D.C. school system in favor of two outside receivers.
Despite the District's "abysmal response" to years of court mandates, school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was new to the job and should have been given more time to fix the broken school, wrote a three-judge D.C. Court of Appeals panel.
"The court has vindicated what we were saying, which is that the courts are ordinarily not in a better position to run parts of our local government," said Walter A. Smith Jr., former deputy corporation counsel. "They should attempt to do it only in the most extraordinary situations."
Advocates for Oak Hill children, the focus of a 14-year legal battle to improve conditions at the Laurel facility, worried that the ruling could weaken progress made by the receivers, University of Maryland educators Peter E. Leone and Sheri Meisel.
"It's unfortunate for the District and the District's children. For the first time, we have a decent school at Oak Hill," said D.C. Public Defender Service lawyer David A. Reiser. Asserting that lawyers will seek "further review," he said he hopes a return to school system control would not mean a return to "business as usual."
"This decision is a victory for self-government and a victory for our children," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said in a statement last night. "Our task now is to hold managers accountable for providing high-quality care to our children. I pledge to the citizens and children of the District that we will not let you down. That's what democracy requires of us."
Last year, after a disappointing experiment in paying Richard Milburn High School Inc. $1.7 million a year to run the Oak Hill school, Ackerman announced D.C. administrators would resume authority.
Judge Richard A. Levie called Ackerman "sincere," but appointed the receivers as a temporary measure after concluding that improvements were being made too slowly. He also questioned the qualifications of Oak Hill's new principal and vice principal, who had been interviewed by Ackerman's choice to oversee the school, Ira K. Thomas.
An internal audit later showed that Thomas bought computers without approval, failed to document purchases and did not keep adequate financial records.
Ackerman said recently she lost faith in Thomas last year.
She moved him in February to Ballou High School, where he is an assistant principal. Reiser said Ackerman's appointment of Thomas, followed by her rejection of him, is significant.
"Ackerman's hand-picked person," Reiser said, " . . . is someone she acknowledged was incompetent to do the job."