The D.C. Board of Education has landed in the middle of a brouhaha over the opening of a charter school, prompting new accusations of incompetence as members are trying to regain power over the school system.
The debate over a possible restructuring of the board is officially on the table, as of last week. At the same time, board members are struggling to complete a series of reports proving their readiness to resume governing in June, when the board is supposed to regain the full authority it lost in 1996.
In recent weeks, the board has kept a low profile, trying to recover from a very bitter and public internecine battle that nearly toppled the board president, Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1). While acknowledging the difficulties, Harvey remains confident.
"I think this transition has been a very bumpy road, but in the final analysis it will be a growing process . . . and I am extremely hopeful it will result in the Board of Education being restored to its power," Harvey said.
But the panel--which was branded a failure and stripped of oversight power in 1996 by the D.C. financial control board--again drew barbs last week. First, a nonprofit organization released a report recommending that it be restructured. Then a group of parents and proponents of charter schools accused it of botching the only power it had: approving and monitoring charter schools.
Charter schools operate with public funds but outside the normal bureaucracy. The school board is one of two agencies legally allowed to approve the opening of such schools in the District. While the appointed D.C. Public Charter School Board has been praised for its thoroughness in vetting applicants, the school board has been accused of being more lax.
The board in the last three years has granted charters to at least two other schools without carefully scrutinizing their founders' financial and academic plans. Both the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School and Young Technocrats Math and Science Laboratory Public Charter school eventually were shut down after a series of management and fiscal fiascoes.
The latest problem centered on the Kwame Nkrumah International School. It had applied to the school board to open as a charter school and had received provisional approval but not a final nod. Kwame Nkrumah nevertheless opened on Sept. 17--officials said they were certain permission was forthcoming even though a school board committee had voted to deny the charter a few days before.
For 270 children, ages 5 through 18, the mix-up means they will most likely have to find a new place to go to school. School board members blamed the school's trustees. "We told these guys not to open," said Tonya Vidal Kinlow (At Large), head of the school board's charter committee. "We asked for information. How did we screw up?"
Parents and charter school proponents countered that the board should have made clear much earlier whether the school would be granted a charter. "I think the school board handled it poorly," said Virginia Walden, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice. "There was a lot of miscommunication. . . . I'm concerned about the whole involvement of the Board of Education in the chartering process. They need to make definite statements. They need to say, 'We will not charter you.' " They didn't in this case."
Robert Cane, executive director of the D.C.-based Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, was blunter: "I think the board's action is unconscionable. . . . The school board just didn't do its job in making the decision on this one."
Kinlow acknowledged that her panel may have stretched out the approval process. "If we did anything wrong, we gave them too much time," she said. "After asking them a few times, we should have said, 'No.' . . . But some people say we don't try to work with our charter schools and we do."
Aside from approving charter schools, the board's main responsibility now is completing a series of self-studies and issuing policy statements, both steps ordered by the D.C. financial control board as part of the transition back to power. Board members and a team of consultants and facilitators have devoted dozens of hours to the effort, with mixed results.
The panel submitted a new ethics policy and "consensus building" plan to the control board on schedule. But then it was told to revise those documents after a faction of school board members complained to the control board that their views were not reflected.
In a sign of the divisiveness that has characterized the elected board, some members said they were not given time to weigh-in on the documents and complained that they were expected to rubber-stamp them. Board member Gail Dixon (At Large), chairwoman of the transition, said the members who complained skipped the relevant work sessions.
"Nothing is going to work if you don't show up to do the work," Dixon said. She has kept records of meeting schedules that were faxed to all board members, and attendance at those sessions, to prove her point.
Dixon said a series of Saturday meetings in September helped more board members come to consensus, but that two board members--she would not name them--still are not participating.
"We're dealing with 11 different personalities with some baggage," Dixon said, insisting that work is still being done. "We're progressing no matter what. We're going to forge ahead."
Control board Vice President Constance B. Newman, who oversees schools and is monitoring the transition process, declined through a spokesman to discuss it.
But others in the city are discussing a serious reformation of the board, including how it is selected. D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the Education Committee, is holding a hearing Oct. 16 on school governance and has said he will propose legislation to change the board in some way.
That view was supported by the D.C. Appleseed Center task force report, released last week. For the board to be more effective, the center concluded, it should be smaller than the current 11-member body and should be selected differently.
"The question is not whether to change the board structure, but how it should be changed," said Joshua Wyner, executive director of Appleseed. "Reform is absolutely necessary."