Mayor Anthony A. Williams wants to seize control of the District's 146 public schools by gaining unprecedented powers to appoint the superintendent and a small, policy-setting school board, a move that would give him a significant political stake in improving the city's long-struggling education system.
Williams's plan, which he will introduce this week, would call for a mayoral takeover of the education system similar to those that generally have drawn good reviews in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.
It would place the superintendent of D.C. schools under Williams's direct control as a member of the mayor's Cabinet and create a five-member school board chosen by the mayor, who would receive nominations from a citizens committee. The mayor's choices then would have to be approved by the D.C. Council.
The change would eliminate the 11-member, elected D.C. Board of Education, a panel that critics have contended is often factionalized and ineffective, but which is nevertheless seen by many city activists as a symbol of much-needed political independence. It was the District's first locally elected governing body, authorized by Congress in 1968.
Williams (D) acknowledged that he could face an "uphill battle" in winning support for his plan from the D.C. Council--which already is weighing four proposals to change the structure of the Board of Education--and from D.C. residents, some of whom may view his plan as undemocratic. In May, residents will vote on whatever legislation is passed by the council this month or in early February.
After a year in office, Williams has begun talking about his legacy and expressing hope that rebuilding the District's troubled school system will be a part of it. He wants to create bold initiatives that will stay in place for years to come.
The mayor is particularly frustrated with the decrepit condition of most facilities in the overwhelmingly black school system, which he believes fosters a sense of hopelessness. He said he must have direct control of D.C. schools if he is to be judged on whether they improve and will risk being branded "anti-democratic" because of the drastic need to draw middle-income families back from the suburbs.
"You can't make a decision like this based on who's supporting it," Williams said during an interview. "This is absolutely critical to the future of this city. . . . The foundation of any democracy is a strong community, and the cornerstone of that is healthy, well-educated children."
Williams said he will formally announce his proposal this week at a news conference that will be attended by council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and as many other city and education leaders as he can muster in support of the plan. He said he then will lobby among council members and the public.
Patterson, who is on the council's education committee, has proposed a five-member appointed school board that would be responsible for hiring the superintendent. She said she was delighted with the mayor's proposal and thought he had a good chance of pushing most of it through.
"He was elected with a pretty strong mandate from the voters . . . that gives him an ability to lead and to explain," Patterson said. "I think he's in a position to bring people over to support this legislation."
Williams also can expect some backing from council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who has proposed a seven-person board with some members elected and others appointed and the superintendent appointed by the mayor. During his unsuccessful 1998 mayoral campaign against Williams, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) also advocated the mayor's appointing the superintendent.
Williams is trying to win over education committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who has proposed a nine-member elected school board. Chavous said yesterday he hopes to forge a compromise that "would preserve democracy." But he said he will not support having the mayor appoint the superintendent and does not believe Williams can get the necessary seven votes on the 13-member council for that part of his plan.
Another bill before the council, sponsored by Ward 5 Democrat Vincent B. Orange Sr., would preserve the current board structure but have the board president chosen by D.C. voters.
The idea of an appointed school board has long been an anathema to most grass-roots education activists in the District. Opposition to the idea has increased since the federally appointed D.C. financial control board seized control of the schools from the elected board three years ago and passed it to an appointed trustee panel, which has mustered little public support. The elected board is supposed to regain power over the school system June 30.
As the council has debated the school board's future in recent months, a small but growing number of influential city leaders quietly has begun calling for an appointed board. They include former D.C. Council member William Lightfoot; former corporation counsel John Payton; Glenda Partee, former co-chairwoman of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, and Roderic V.O. Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
But the objections to eliminating the elected board have been much louder. Parents and other education activists lined up at a recent council hearing to denounce the idea, and school board members have accused the council of racism for trying to change the majority-black panel.
"There's so few [officials] D.C. can elect, I think they need to keep" the current structure, said Linda Moody, a former school board member who now is chairman of the citywide coalition of parent-teacher organizations.
Moody said an appointed board would be perceived as elitist, noting that those backing such a plan are mostly affluent residents whose children, if they attend public school at all, are in the more successful schools west of Rock Creek Park.
"The everyday citizen in this city, who is active in this city, will think that [Williams] is responding to those people who have money and not to those who do not," she said.
Patterson acknowledged that most of the public debate so far has leaned against an appointed school board. But she questioned the extent to which education activists represent the opinions of public school parents and D.C. residents and said she hears much more support for an appointed panel from "the people I see at weekend soccer games."
Williams noted that his plan would have to be approved by voters. He also is proposing to again put the issue before D.C. voters four years after it was implemented, to give people a second chance to reject it if they do not see progress in schools.
"To me, it's elitist to talk about broad principles of democracy and, meanwhile, the children aren't being educated," Williams said. "Every child deserves an equal education. That's democracy. And right now, it ain't happening."