The chairman of the D.C. Council's education committee said he will introduce legislation today that would cut two members from the city's Board of Education, require ward representatives to win citywide support and eliminate the panel's power to create public charter schools.
Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) said he also will ask the D.C. financial control board to delay returning full oversight authority to the elected school board until January 2001, when board members elected under his proposed changes would take office.
Chavous's legislation is a last-ditch effort to improve the school board before it is scheduled to reassume control over the city's troubled school system in eight months. It would be the most significant locally mandated change in the District's governing structure since the Home Rule Charter 26 years ago.
Chavous said seven of his 12 council colleagues will co-sponsor the bill, which will be the subject of a Nov. 29 public hearing. If the bill passes, it would need to be ratified in a citywide referendum in May and then approved by Congress. A control board official said members had not seen the bill.
Chavous said that shrinking the school board from 11 members to nine would bring greater cohesion to a body that has been paralyzed by infighting both before and after the control board's 1996 takeover of the school system.
Several school board members and some longtime education advocates were skeptical about the proposal, saying it would curtail the city's already limited right to democratic self-rule.
But Chavous said he is convinced, after studying school boards and education reform efforts across the country, that "we need to have a fresh start. This is not going to be an easy journey . . . but reform does not occur when you are comfortable with the status quo."
The bill would eliminate three at-large seats in favor of an at-large elected president who, like ward representatives, would serve a four-year term. School board members now elect a president each year from among their ranks.
Selection of ward representatives would become a two-step process, like that used in Seattle and elsewhere. The top two vote-getters in each ward primary would compete against each other in a citywide election, requiring them to demonstrate an ability to win a broad base of support.
Five seats--four ward seats and the at-large board president's post--would come up for election in 2000, when the terms of six current board members expire. The remaining four seats would be filled by election in 2002.
The legislation would specifically define the board's role as hiring and overseeing the superintendent, setting policy and approving the budget. Board members historically have participated in everything from ordering repairs at individual schools to approving principal appointments.
Chavous also would require the board and superintendent to sign a memorandum every two years outlining their division of labor, subject to council approval.
The legislation incorporates some suggestions in a recent report on school reform issued by the D.C. Appleseed Center. But it doesn't shrink the board to seven members, the most common size of urban boards, and it doesn't endorse the idea of appointing some or all board members, as several cities now do.
The co-sponsors, Chavous said, are council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large); Carol Schwartz (R-At Large); David Catania (R-At Large); Jim Graham (D-Ward 1); Jack Evans (D-Ward 2); Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) and Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8). Graham and Schwartz attended the news conference. An aide to Cropp confirmed her sponsorship. Catania, Evans, Ambrose and Allen were not contacted for verification of their sponsorship.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said she would rather see a five-member appointed board but could not get support for such a proposal.
Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, applauded defining board responsibilities but said she fears that requiring ward representatives to run citywide would make it harder for candidates with "parochial," ward-specific concerns.
"The more wild-eyed radicals, the people with really far-out perspectives, won't win," said Rice-Thurston, who attended the news conference. "The people [in each ward] should be able to get what they vote for. . . . That's the way democracy operates."
School board President Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) opposed the loss of two board seats and questioned "tweaking" the Home Rule Charter. Board member Tom Kelly (Ward 7) called the proposal "a bunch of garbage" and "highly undemocratic."
But Appleseed Executive Director Joshua Wyner argued that the change would be the work of a locally elected council, approved in a citywide ballot--what Wyner called "the essence of democracy."
"Why we should accept what Congress handed down to us as the unchangeable truth of our democracy is beyond me," he said.
Chavous also will introduce a bill to erase the school board's chartering authority, which it and an appointed board were given by Congress three years ago. Charter school advocates, who have criticized the board's record in creating and monitoring charter schools, said they would support the change if another chartering authority is created.
It was not immediately clear what would happen to the 15 schools that the board has chartered or whether the council can take away a power the board was given by Congress.