With little fanfare, and even less angst, a D.C. Council member who has steadfastly denounced the 1996 takeover of the public school system by the D.C. financial control board has proposed extending it.
Education committee chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) sent a letter last week to control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin asking her to delay the Board of Education's return to power until Jan. 1, 2001, six months after the takeover is set to expire.
Chavous made the request a day after introducing landmark legislation that would shrink the elected board from 11 to nine members and would change the way those members are chosen, requiring the eight ward representatives to be nominated in a ward primary and then elected citywide.
If his legislation, which has the support of all but three of the council's 13 members, passes, it must be upheld in a citywide referendum that would be held in May. If approved by a majority of voters, the school board's restructuring would take effect with next fall's elections--and five representatives chosen in the new process would take their seats on the panel Jan. 1, 2001.
Chavous, who as a mayoral candidate in 1998 routinely denounced the control board's takeover of many city government functions, said he still believes in autonomy for locally elected officials.
But he said that he became convinced of the need to change the structure of the school board last summer, while trying to mediate a nasty leadership dispute among board members, and that he believes the board must change and undergo new training before it can run the school system effectively.
"I would rather have no school board at all than this one," Chavous said.
He said the logistics of changing how the board is structured prompted him to ask the control board not to return power as scheduled on June 30.
The control board will not comment specifically on Chavous's request at least until Vice Chairman Constance B. Newman, the member in charge of education issues, returns from an overseas trip, Executive Director Francis Smith said. Even then, Smith said, it is possible the board won't act until the council votes on the legislation--or until voters have a chance to weigh in.
But control board Chairman Rivlin said in a recent interview that the panel is discussing ways to change the structure of the school board, which she said "has really proven itself quite dysfunctional." Rivlin said she and her colleagues aren't sure whether a restructuring could be completed by June 30.
School board members were sharply critical of the idea of extending the takeover--and also questioned much of Chavous's legislation to change the way members are elected.
"It leaves us paralyzed," said Vice President Dwight E. Singleton (Ward 4). "I think we have to be very careful in trying to strip the power from other elected officials . . . [because] we have very limited elected authority and very limited voting representation here in the District of Columbia."
School board member Tonya Vidal Kinlow (At Large) said any delay in returning power to the board would be pointless if legislation to change the way the board is structured isn't approved. The control board, she said, should wait to act on the request "until the people decide"--even though that would leave the school board in limbo.
"The people of this city really have to decide what they want from the people who govern their school system, and then we all have to accept whatever it is that the people decide."
But at least one city activist who has vigorously opposed the control board agreed with Chavous that a delay in returning power to the elected board makes sense.
"It is still by and large moving towards an elective process. What's here is a very pragmatic and practical reason, and it is logistical," said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, who serves on the board of the nonprofit D.C. Appleseed Center, which recently recommended changes in the school board that are the underpinning of Chavous's legislation.
"Obviously I'm still an opponent of anything appointed, and a proponent of anything elected," said Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. "But I think in this context, it's the responsible thing to do."
Chavous said most constituents he meets support his proposal, a position that was backed up by most of the responses received by The Washington Post after readers were asked to comment on the proposed change.
But many longtime school activists are lining up to oppose Chavous's effort.
Any delay in returning power to the school board "is absolutely unacceptable," said Larry Gray, an official with the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, the citywide PTA umbrella group, who has run unsuccessfully for both the council and the school board.
"We should come back here after the re-empowerment of the school board as free citizens to discuss what changes, if any, should be made to the structure of the school board."
Staff writer Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.