In a quote by D.C. Council member David Catania (R-At Large) in a Metro article yesterday, the prefix "non" was dropped from the phrase "non-graduation rate." Catania was referring to the school system's 35 percent dropout rate, which means that about 35 percent of students who enter ninth grade have dropped out of school four years later. (Published 12/01/1999)

An aide to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said yesterday that the 11-member Board of Education should be reduced to seven or fewer members, a recommendation offered at a sometimes rancorous D.C. Council hearing on proposals to shrink the panel and change how its representatives are selected.

The recommendation was one of relatively few specifics to emerge from the 13 1/2-hour session, at which current school board members and council members traded insults over who is responsible for the dismal performance of much of the city's public school system. School board members also accused the council of being racist and anti-democratic in trying to alter the makeup of their panel.

Dwight E. Singleton (Ward 4), the school board's vice president, said the 13-member council was called ineffective when it was majority-black but has been hailed as "the best thing since sliced bread" since last year's elections, which left seven whites and six blacks in power. He criticized two competing proposals to change the board and said the council has "an obvious focus on altering the current composition of the board, which is majority-African American."

"I find Mr. Singleton's conclusion reprehensible," snapped D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3).

Several of her colleagues sharply questioned school board members about what they plan to do to improve schools if they regain powers seized by the D.C. financial control board in 1996 and expressed disgust with the mostly vague answers they received.

"The more I hear from you, the more I am convinced that Mr. Chavous is right on," said council member David Catania (R-At Large), referring to the legislation authored by Education Committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) to reduce the size of the school board and change the way members are selected.

"It is arrogant to be on a school board that has a 35 percent graduation rate and not suggest changes in governance structure," Catania said.

Chavous and nine other council members have introduced legislation to reduce the board to nine representatives chosen through a combination of ward and citywide elections. Education Committee member Patterson has proposed scrapping the elected school board and having the mayor appoint a five-member school board.

A smaller panel, which is the norm in other cities, would be a "more manageable, cohesive unit," said Gregory McCarthy, Williams's director of policy and evaluation.

McCarthy did not take sides on whether board members should be appointed or elected.

More than 60 witnesses were scheduled to testify at the hearing, which stretched until about past 11 p.m. Council members heard from a raft of city officials and civic activists as well as the heads of three elected school boards that are considered successful: Arlington, Virginia Beach and Seattle, which has a two-tier election process similar to what Chavous is proposing and whose president testified via teleconference.

A few members of the public, including former D.C. Council member Bill Lightfoot and former school board member Barbara Lett Simmons, expressed strong support for either Chavous's or Patterson's proposal.

But most grass-roots education activists opposed any change.

"Don't believe the Hype . . . reject both the Chavous and Patterson proposals," said a flier passed out by "D.C. Citizens to Support Our Children and Preserve Our Elected School Board." A leader of the group, Spingarn High School PTA President Jerald J. Woody Sr., testified that both legislative packages are "worthless."

Any change in the way board members are chosen must be ratified in a citywide vote. Chavous and Patterson hope to place the issue on the ballot for the already scheduled May 2 elections. To do so, the council must take final action on the proposals between Jan. 10 and Feb. 9.

Chavous's proposal would have each ward nominate two candidates in a primary, with the winner from each ward selected in citywide balloting. The board president would be elected citywide. Chavous has asked the control board to delay returning the school board's power, which is set to occur in June, until newly elected members take office Jan. 1, 2001.

Some council aides and school board critics said the school board members' testimony did their crusade to preserve the status quo more harm than good.

They cited spelling errors and typographical errors in the statement Singleton read into and submitted for the record. After noting that he had graduated from the public school system, the statement said he is the father of a kindergartner who attends a D.C. "Pubic" school. He also misspelled Catania's name.

Asked later about the mistakes, Singleton shrugged them off. "The content of that testimony is what it is," he said. "The content speaks for itself."

CAPTION: School board member Gail Dixon (At Large) listens to council members' comments on her testimony.