Mayor Anthony A. Williams is unlikely to win D.C. Council approval of his proposal to take over city schools, but his bold stance probably will lead to a compromise that would slash the size of the school board and its authority over the superintendent, several council members said in interviews.
Williams is to hold a news conference this morning to formally unveil legislation that would give him the power to appoint the schools superintendent and a five-person, policy-setting Board of Education. He will be flanked by two current and two former council members and a raft of community, religious and education group leaders.
"Not all of them have universally endorsed everything, but they're willing to stand behind him," said Gregory McCarthy, Williams's director of policy and evaluation. "There's some momentum here."
The mayor has spent the past several days briefing council members and other government leaders on his proposal, which was first reported Sunday in The Washington Post.
Members of the council, which already was weighing four bills to reform the school board, met twice yesterday to discuss the various measures. Opposition to an appointed board remains strong, participants said, because of a perception that eliminating elected positions will further undermine the city's limited self-governance.
But a growing number of council members seem open to cutting the size of the 11-member school board to seven members and to giving the mayor more control over the superintendent--which Williams said would make him directly accountable for improving the troubled school system.
By weighing in on the issue of school governance, the politically popular mayor may bolster the confidence of council members, who will have to submit any legislation reshaping the school board to a public referendum in May.
"Where he's coming from will help to influence how much of a risk we want to take," said council member Phil Mendelsohn (D-At Large), a member of the panel's education committee. "This may be the only opportunity we have in a long time to effect some meaningful reform in the structure of the school system."
Many community activists have come out in force in recent months against reducing the size of the board or changing the way members are chosen.
"It's basically undemocratic," said Leroy Thorpe, who lives in Shaw. Electing the board "gives parity towards those people that have the opportunity to go out and vote. To appoint people to serve, it just doesn't fare well."
But other civic leaders and organizations, frustrated that years of elected governance have left the system in disarray, are calling for an appointed board.
PTA presidents contacted yesterday said they are open to anything that will improve their children's educations. "That is the bottom line for me, that things improve," said Francesca Dixon, of Walker-Jones Elementary School in Shaw.
"From a philosophical point of view, I would prefer an elected school board," said Hugh Allen, of Wilson High School in Tenleytown. "But there is some merit in having [the board] appointed. . . . It begins to align the accountability and responsibility a little better."
Williams wants to choose board members from among candidates nominated by a citizens commission, with appointees then facing council confirmation. In other cities, notably Cleveland and Chicago, the mayor appoints the school board. Cleveland's mayor also hires and fires the superintendent, a power held by Chicago's mayor from 1995 to 1999, then handed back to the board last spring.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said making the superintendent accountable to the mayor, who controls school funding, is a crucial step.
"We need to be bold. And bold is not reducing the size" of the board, said Evans, who will attend the mayor's news conference. "Bold is having the mayor appoint the superintendent and either drastically reducing the size of the board or having an appointed board."
But education committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) adamantly opposes giving the mayor the power to hire and fire the superintendent, as do some influential schools activists.
Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, said the superintendent must be an independent advocate for the schools. And newly elected school board President Robert G. Childs (At Large) said the mayor's office is too political a place for such important educational decisions to be made there.
Williams is "educationally focused," said Childs, who met with the mayor yesterday in hopes of persuading him to give the often-fractious school board a last chance before making drastic changes. "But if you get a mayor whose agenda is something different, what happens to the school system?"
The council hopes to hammer out compromise legislation within two weeks.
Council members are divided on how to choose the school panel, with some insisting that all members be elected and others favoring a combination of elected and appointed board members, similar to a proposal made last month by council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6).
"If I have a choice between making an appointment and letting the citizens chose, then I'm for democracy," said Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D).
Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) dismissed such analysis as overly sentimental.
"We have home rule. We have an elected legislature. We have an elected mayor," he said. "What matters to me is what would educate the children and prepare them for a better life."
CAPTION: D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is to announce his proposal today to take control of city schools.