The D.C. Council yesterday soundly rejected Mayor Anthony A. Williams's bid to appoint the Board of Education, giving preliminary approval instead to a plan that shrinks but preserves the elected panel--one of the few voter-chosen governing bodies in a city that one council member said "cries for more democracy."
The council delayed for two weeks a vote on a proposal that would let the mayor hire and fire the superintendent, subject to the approval of the school board. Williams (D) said later that the two proposals together would be a "confusing and cloudy" school governance plan that he would veto.
Council members voted 10 to 2 against Williams's proposal for the mayor to name the superintendent of schools and a five-member Board of Education, then voted 7 to 5 to cut the elected school board from 11 members to seven.
The idea of keeping the elected school board but giving the mayor the power to select the superintendent was seen as a compromise between the mayor's initiative and those who strongly oppose an appointed board. Supporters on the council say it will force the mayor to work closely with the superintendent and school board, ending the factionalism and bickering that have damaged the school system for years.
But opponents of the compromise, approved last week by the council's Education Committee, warned yesterday that having the mayor pick the superintendent while the elected board sets school policy would add to the gridlock in school governance.
"We will not know who is in charge. . . . We need to make a clear choice one way or the other," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who along with Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), supported the mayor's plan. "We simply cannot have it both ways."
Voting for the seven-member elected panel were Chairman Linda Cropp (D) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), David Catania (R-At Large) and Phil Mendelsohn (D-At Large).
"I'm looking for a way where we can achieve both representation and accountability," said Graham. "I've got to end up believing in the electoral process. I really must."
Council members Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), Harold Brazil (D-At Large) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) joined Patterson and Evans in voting against a seven-member elected board. Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) was out of town and missed the vote.
Watching the session were several education advocates whose views range from ardent support for to ardent opposition to an appointed board--but who agreed that the council compromise would wrongly pit the mayor and school board against each other.
Joshua Wyner, executive director of the nonprofit D.C. Appleseed Center, whose fall report on schools governance launched the council debate, said the council must vest power either in an elected school board or the mayor--not both.
"Whoever sets policy has to appoint the superintendent, and whoever appoints the superintendent has to set policy," he said.
Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, said her group is split on whether to support an elected or an appointed board, but has mustered little enthusiasm for the bifurcated arrangement likely to emerge from the council.
"For some people, this is like the worst of all possible worlds, because it doesn't give anyone the ultimate authority," Rice-Thurston said.
Under the new school board structure, one representative would be elected from every two political wards, with two members and a president elected at large. The change requires amending the District's Home Rule Charter, which must be approved by voters in a citywide referendum.
The council wants to place the issue on the ballot with the May 2 presidential primary but is at odds with the Board of Elections and Ethics on whether there is time to do so. If not, a special election could be held June 27, days before the D.C. financial control board is scheduled to return school management powers to the elected school board after a 30-month hiatus.
Debate among council members grew passionate at times yesterday. While citing research showing that elected as well as appointed boards can be effective, many argued that the District's historic lack of voter representation left them more inclined to support an elected board.
"I'm very loath to totally give up elected representatives in a city that cries for more democracy," Ambrose said. Instead, she is pushing her colleagues to support a proposal she wrote last month for a hybrid board of four elected and three appointed members. The mayor would still appoint the superintendent, but confirmation would be up to the council.
"We'll be looking for a compromise of some kind," Ambrose said.
Chavous, who chairs the Education Committee, said he will work with Williams and the council to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the school board, mayor and superintendent before the next legislative session begins Feb. 1--in hopes his committee's plan can win full approval.
But Williams said that while he is willing to work with the council, he would need a lot of convincing to believe an elected school board and a mayorally appointed superintendent can be held accountable for public school performance.
"This has got a kind of majestic vagueness to it," the mayor said. "You shouldn't need LoJack to figure out where the person responsible for the schools is located."
CAPTION: Mayor Anthony A. Williams said he is not convinced that an elected school board and a mayorally appointed superintendent would work.