D.C. Board of Education members, during an occasionally tense hearing, told the D.C. Council last week that they do not support major changes in the school board's governing structure. But council members signaled that significant restructuring is inevitable.
Council members, who are examining proposals for changing how the school board operates, also were urged by a stream of public witnesses to retain an elected panel rather than revert to an appointed one.
"This is the wrong time to scale back the community's involvement in selecting its school board," ANC Commissioner Tom Wells said Saturday, noting that home rule in the District is still relatively young and deserves time to mature.
The hearing was called by council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), head of the Education Committee, who is spearheading a drive to revamp the way the school system is governed.
The school board oversaw the system's operations for more than 25 years until 1996, when the D.C. financial control board declared it a failure and stripped the board of nearly all of its power. The school board is scheduled to reassume management of school operations by June 2000, although the control board could extend that deadline.
There are now five bodies that have oversight responsibilities for D.C. public schools--Congress, the control board, the board of education trustees, the council and the school board. This, many education advocates argue, has made it difficult for any superintendent to operate and has blurred the lines of authority and accountability.
"Before the takeover, we had divided governance," testified Mary Levy, budget analyst and counsel for the education advocacy group Parents United. "Unfortunately, that system is a model of clarity and enlightenment when compared to what we have now."
Chavous scheduled the hearing for Saturday, ostensibly to make it easier to hear from public witnesses about how they think the system should be governed. But the first two hours were spent grilling five school board members on how they view their governance role.
School board President Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) said her panel hoped that only minor changes to the board structure would be implemented. She urged that the board remain an elected body and that the 11-member composition be retained, but in a slightly different form.
Currently, one board member is elected from each of the eight wards and three members are elected at-large. Harvey said the school panel wants the eight ward seats to be continued, with two more members and a president elected by citywide vote. She said the school panel wants any changes to its makeup approved in a referendum.
Chavous, however, said there is "a strong argument" for reducing the number of board members. Barbara Allen, of the National School Board Association, testified that the majority of school boards in the United States--74 percent--have seven to nine members.
His primary goal, Chavous said, is to make clear the roles and responsibilities of the school board, which have been blurry for many years. He said legislation he hopes to bring to the council early next year will contain a provision for whether the board should be elected or appointed.
The hearing was billed as an opportunity for members of the education community to discuss school system governance. But dozens who came to speak were left cooling their heels while council members questioned Harvey and four of her board colleagues. Some witnesses gave up and left; others stayed but were furious.
"I am outraged that you spent the first two hours of the committee's hearing on school governance grilling the elected Board of Education during the Saturday morning hearing that was timed to encourage testimony from the general public," Delabian Rice-Thurston, head of Parents United, wrote to Chavous this week. "Grill them on their own time, not on the public's time.
"If it is the council members' strategy to make the elected board look bad in front of the activist community and during the many replays of the hearing on Channel 13, it is a misplaced strategy," she wrote.
Some of the council members' questions to the school board were pointed, including one by Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who asked board members to describe their most important accomplishment since joining the board. A few members of the board, which has been virtually powerless during the terms of five of its members, did not answer but instead offered their qualifications to be on the panel.
Council member David Catania, (R-At Large), asked board members to grade the school board's performance before the takeover.
Harvey said she could not give a numerical grade because the issue was complicated. "Unsatisfactory," she said.
"Humor me," Catania retorted. "I know 'A' through 'F.' "
"A 'C,' " Harvey responded, to cackles from the audience.
School board member Tom Kelly (Ward 7) said, "Between 'C' and 'D.' "
William Lockridge (Ward 8) said "D."
But Benjamin Bonham (Ward 6) refused to give a grade, saying, "That question doesn't need to be answered the way you say it." Dwight E. Singleton (Ward 4) did not want to give a grade either and told Catania, "You are trying to inflict your morality on me."
"When it stank, it stank. Just say it stank," Catania retorted angrily. "I'm trying to get a sense of the level of honesty and engagement I am going to get."
At one point he blasted the panel's performance, complaining that the school system spends some $12,000 a student and has little or nothing to show for it. None of the board members challenged his figures, although school officials said later that per pupil spending is much lower and depends on student needs.
School board members left after giving testimony, and Chavous also was absent for a while to attend a health fair in his ward, and thus did not hear some of the speakers. Many seemed concerned that Chavous would push to have the school board appointed by the mayor rather than elected.
"We believe, with mixed emotions, in an elected school board," Washington Teachers Union President Barbara Bullock said, explaining that her organization has been unhappy with school board members in the past who interfered in personnel decisions. "We cannot continue on the road we have been on with the school board micromanaging things."