The Washington Post recently asked District residents whether they would like to see changes in the governing structure of the Board of Education before that body resumes management of the public school system. Below is the second, and final, collection of responses, which have been edited for space and clarity. Earlier responses were published in the Oct. 14 District Weekly.
The D.C. Council will hold a public hearing Nov. 29 on proposed legislation that would cut the number of elected Board of Education members from 11 to nine. It also would change how board members are chosen: The presidency would be filled in a citywide election, and each ward would choose two candidates in a primary and then voters citywide would elect a winner in a runoff. The board currently elects a president each year from among its eight ward representatives and three at-large members.
The hearing will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in council chambers at One Judiciary Square, 441 Fourth St. NW. Those wishing to testify should call Kristy Tate at 724-8068. If the council approves the bill, proposed by Education Committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), it must be ratified in a citywide referendum that likely would be held in May.
Chavous has asked the D.C. financial control board, which currently oversees the school system, not to return full oversight powers to the elected board until Jan. 1, 2001, six months later than scheduled. The board lost the power to govern the school system in November 1996. The delay would allow some board seats to be filled in next fall's elections according to the proposed new structure--if it is approved.
A few respondents to The Post query opposed making any change in the board's governing structure, but most were adamant that there is a need for a change. Respondents critical of the current board included its Ward 3 representative and a consultant who worked with the board earlier this year.
Angered by Current Board The D.C. Board of Education should not be given control of the schools or power over the superintendent. They are the most incompetent bunch of self-centered, non-focused idiots to be elected to city government. They cannot even manage the charter schools, so how in the world do they think they can manage a complete school system?
The D.C. Public Schools are making a remarkable recovery under the tutelage of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and I applaud the great work she is doing. I plead with the control board to continue overseeing the superintendent or have her report to the mayor.
Claudette L. Mills
Posturing Out; Professionalism in As a D.C. resident, I hate to give up what few voting privileges I have. However, many years of frustration with the chronic inability of an elected board to manage the city's schools have led me to the inevitable conclusion that our city and its children cannot be served by an elected board, most of whose members misunderstand their role, and many of whom are more concerned with posturing and pleasing the noisiest constituents than exercising responsible oversight.
Bring on an appointed panel of responsible management experts who serve for the public good with no ambitions to use their role as a stepping stone to the city council.
Maybe an elected board of ombudsmen could still serve as a direct voice for the people.
Note: The writer worked as a consultant to the elected board for several months earlier this year.
Seeking a Balance of Power We need an elected school board to check and balance the superintendent's power.
What children, their parents and Washington need is a governing body that will be accountable to its constituents for effective school management--one that will respond to concerns in a timely manner, and one that will ensure that no one individual has absolute power to determine the fate of local schools, their students and their teachers.
Schools are about kids, and they're getting short shrift. No one, not even the control board, appears to be either capable of or interested in doing a thing about it.
Smaller Board Needed Although District of Columbia residents are not fully franchised and are therefore reluctant to give up any voting rights, I think the stakes are so high that some changes in the election process are desirable.
A smaller board (five to seven members) would help to promote a more collegial and less divisive group.
A board appointed by the mayor, from a list of candidates recommended by the community, with confirmation by the city council, could work--except that a future mayor may politicize the process too much.
A better approach is to have the smaller board elected from among candidates from the different geographical areas of the city, in citywide elections rather than by ward. This may make the members less territorial.
The suggestion that we should not make sweeping changes, but instead should continue to throw out problem board members is not a solution. That process perpetuates the problem and hinders efforts to attract the best candidates.
Tometta M. Dendy
Preserve Board and Democracy Our city needs to retain an elected school board. It may help the system to reconfigure the board by reducing its size or realigning the manner in which our representatives are elected, but we should resist any attempt to take the selection of board members out of the people's hands.
We have too few elected positions in the city now and should not centralize power any further. We can't afford to give up on an ounce of democracy. It was only 18 months ago that people were making serious noise about our need for a city manager form of government.
Those suggestions had nothing to do with governance, but rather were a commentary on [then-Mayor] Marion Barry's standing in some segments of the city.
Structure Isn't the Problem The current members of the Board of Education are acting similarly to the prior city council, before the membership changed. It is wrong to create a cumbersome and ridiculous system, wherein a change in personnel will suffice. Further, tinkering with the current board structure is an affront to those of us who worked so long and hard to create the process we have.
I can recall similar thoughts of restructuring the council when it was ineffective. Suppose we had? The thrust should be to educate the public to elect responsible persons to all elective offices and not toward fixing something that ain't broke!
James O. Thomas Jr.
Dissolve Current Board; Try Again Abolish the elected school board in its entirety by December 1999 and begin the process for new elections for a new school board, which would come into being November 2000. The board's membership should be reduced to eight members, one from each ward.
Board members should be allowed to hire one person to assist them in the running of the ward office, but otherwise be denied authority to hire within the office.
The elected board should adopt a newly revised code of ethics and bylaws that provides penalties for breaches; abolish the board's committee structure; and require eight members to meet together on all matters that come before the board.
A new orientation which includes parliamentary procedures training and orientation by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, the Board of Elections and Ethics and top school officials should be enforced prior to members being sworn in. Apart from setting policy, board members' duties, responsibilities and powers should be defined in conjunction with direct service to the schools in each ward.
The school parent organizations must have a say in what powers their elected representatives have to address their concerns throughout the school year. They, not the council or the control board, should decide the authority of their elected representatives.
Ward 3 school board representative
Choose All Seats Citywide I strongly support a school board change. I would prefer a mixture of appointed and elected board members, but will settle for all elected if they would be chosen citywide.
Keep Changes Simple The Chavous proposal may be too expensive and time-consuming for either the city or potential candidates, and it will be difficult to understand. Candidates will spend as much time explaining how to vote for them as why--maybe more.
I'd simplify things with one election, not two. Keep the eight ward seats, but elect each at large. Granted, it's not a perfect solution. You could lose [in] your ward and still win, but all parts of the city would have a say.
Right now, it is too easy to get your name on the ballot. Elections for the school board are often just name-recognition contests, and serious candidates have had a hard time getting attention in the pack. A nuisance bond system would keep the field to a reasonable size.
I'd drop the petition requirements, which prove little and are busy work. If you wanted to run, you'd post a bond, say $500, with the election board. If you got less than 3 percent of the vote, you'd forfeit it. Get more than 3 percent, and you get it back.
Chavous's plan is the right direction, but we need a simpler remedy that won't overwhelm either the public or the city's electoral system.
Get Support for Superintendent I am not so sure the Chavous plan will solve the problem of having a school board that is not really interested in working with the superintendent to solve the very serious problems that currently exist in the District.
We finally have a top-notch, activist superintendent who needs all the help she can get. Perhaps an appointed school board would be better, or some requirements for qualifications and screening of elected school board officials.
Don't Mess With Home Rule Don't dilute the people's voice!
It is outrageous that leaders of the nation's capital would dare to risk tampering with the Home Rule Charter to be en vogue with other jurisdictions and special interest groups.
How dare the council think about eliminating the ward representation on the Board of Education. We don't need citizens in other wards to ratify the choices we make for our own ward. That is insulting to the electorate in each ward. We need to increase the level of accountability on the school board, not do away with the ward leadership.
It is a preposterous notion that ward representation is all right for the council but so very wrong for the school board. Does the council leadership fear footsteps at their door?
When the proposed changes are put to a referendum, each change should be listed separately for the public to vote on. Some of us do support electing the president of the board. However, we need a way for the citizens to show their disdain for the changes they deplore by overwhelmingly voting them down.
The council had better be cautious about tinkering with the Home Rule Charter. Once they open up the process, they might find that there is another special interest group just waiting to wipe their positions out.
Make the board what it should be, a tool of the people and champion of the kids. Properly educate the voters on all the candidates so that they can make the right choices. Keep the three at-large seats and eight ward representatives.
Council, heal thyself.
Kathryn A. Pearson-West
Teach the Board Its Job More important than how many members and how they are elected is the issue of training for D.C. Board of Education members in the appropriate role of a governing--versus a managing body.
That said, a seven-person board would be more conducive to collegial policymaking, and a citywide runoff election would help prevent parochial positioning from subverting the process.
Unimpressed by the Board I think the school board should be abolished. It's another level of bureaucracy that only delays or stops progress. Why not let the school superintendent do her job? In addition, why pay all those extra salaries.
I've not been impressed at all with the results of the school board's work.
Chavous on the Right Track After 25 years as a Ward 3 resident, I have yet to figure out why we need a school board. If the board is supposed to have provided oversight for the school system, it failed miserably. Chairman Chavous is on the right track.
Make It a Volunteer Post Board members should be asked to volunteer their service. You will probably get people who will be very dedicated to children and education.
By all means keep politics out of the school system. Encourage more input and participation of parents.
I think the salaries paid board members, as well as council members, are the root of all problems in the area.
Mary E. Brown
Ignorance Is Problem The main problem with electing a school board is our ignorance about what preparation for the job would be helpful and total ignorance about the candidates. I wish they could be appointed--by some knowledgeable person--at least for a trial of several years.
Choose Better Board Members The reputation of the D.C. Board of Education is constantly being eroded by the bickering and in-fighting during meetings. The community is disappointed and scornful of the board and questions its concern for the education and training of the children and whether it takes seriously its accountability to the community.
The selection or election of board members should be according to the knowledge, expertise and skills of candidates.
The board should include qualified directors of program planning and development; physical plant and equipment; public relations; budget and finance; contracts, leases and agreements; and training.
There should be a standard-setting commission that would rate and rank candidates.
The board is primarily responsible for policymaking and the general well-being of the educational system. It should not interfere with the day-to-day operation of the overall educational program and attendant services.
That is the responsibility of the superintendent and staff.
Ethel James Williams
Better Board Structure Needed Current board members micromanage individual school issues in their wards and have failed abjectly in carrying out their charter school responsibilities.
They appear more worried about their own political careers than in following through on committee responsibilities, apparently lack intellectual capability for sustained game-plans and careen from crisis to crisis.
The city needs to first design a clearly accountable governance structure, clarifying responsibility for all interagency functions such as procurement. This will establish how many board members are really needed.
Nonpartisan ward primaries would create a level playing field for citywide elections of board members. The board president should be appointed by the mayor for a four-year term, ratified by the city council.
Robert D. Andrew