Plans to restore management power to the District's school board in June likely will be put off until the board is revamped by the end of the year, D.C. officials said yesterday, amid warnings on Capitol Hill that Congress will intervene if city leaders can't decide soon how to make the panel more effective.
Congress already has returned day-to-day management of the D.C. government from a federally appointed financial control board to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), and was scheduled to give back similar power to the D.C. school board on June 30. The control board seized the school system in November 1996, citing years of dysfunction, poor test scores, questionable spending and other problems.
But Williams and D.C. Council members are divided over whether the school board should be elected--as it is now--or appointed or a mix of both. Until a consensus is reached and D.C. voters weigh in on a final proposal, the control board is reluctant to return power this summer.
Control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin yesterday told the House subcommittee that oversees the District that her panel "is prepared to turn over governance of the school system, but must be assured that there is a new governance system in place that will serve the best interests of the city and its children."
Because of the delay in creating a new school board and the need to schedule a citywide vote this spring, Rivlin said the control board would consider a request from local elected officials to postpone the return of power to the school board until the end of this year. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) already has made such a request, and welcomed Rivlin's overture yesterday.
"We're going to come up with a new governance plan. It will be in effect for the start of the next year," said Chavous, who as chairman of the council's education committee is directing the effort to reconstitute the school board. Extending the control board's authority over schools until then, Chavous said, "gives us the opportunity to have a fresh start."
At the hearing, which covered a wide range of D.C. issues, subcommittee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) warned Williams, Rivlin and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) that if they could not settle their differences soon, members of Congress would be tempted to intervene.
"We're looking for you to try to resolve this," Davis told the D.C. officials, adding that Congress will "lay off" as long as there is a solid plan. Of his colleagues, he said: "Many of them are not going to hesitate to take control" if city officials don't.
Williams and Cropp pledged to have a quick solution; the mayor met with Chavous yesterday. The council on Tuesday soundly defeated Williams's proposal for a five-member school board appointed by the mayor, instead of the current 11-member elected panel. Under Williams's plan, he also would appoint the school superintendent, who now is chosen by the control board.
Instead, the council gave preliminary approval to shrinking the elected board to seven members, and is still considering whether to allow the mayor to appoint the superintendent. Williams has threatened to veto the council plan.
The two sides are negotiating to bring their positions closer together. The council is expected to pass a complete school reform package within the next few weeks.
Any major changes in the makeup of the school board require ratification by D.C. voters--a referendum could take place during the May presidential primary at the earliest--and approval from Congress.
Even if the council had approved the mayor's proposal for an appointed school board, the referendum timetable made it unlikely that a new board could be in place by June 30.
If the board remains all or partially elected, which at this point seems likely, candidates would run for the newly configured board in the fall and take office early next year.
The new president of the elected school board, Robert G. Childs (At Large), said he would continue to fight for the board's survival by launching a public campaign to address crucial school issues, including governance.
"I've felt all along that we've got a lot of proving to do. People are watching to see if there's going to be a difference," said Childs, who took the helm early this month. "We have to prove that we're worthy of their support."
Davis, a Northern Virginia lawmaker who characterized the District's school board as dysfunctional for 30 years, said improving D.C. schools is "the toughest nut for this city to crack." Without good schools, he and others said, the city cannot keep and attract residents who pay the taxes that provide sorely needed government revenue.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) warned that the need to expand the city's tax base was critical, in view of a recent prediction by economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University in Fairfax, who has projected that the D.C. economy will peak in 2001, followed by four consecutive years of decline.
Norton said she will propose that Congress help by providing a new federal payment for public safety that would cover such expenses as police overtime for demonstrations by groups petitioning the federal, not the District, government. Erik Christian, the deputy mayor for public safety, endorsed the idea.
CAPTION: Mayor Anthony A. Williams testifies before the House subcommittee overseeing the District. At left is control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin.
CAPTION: Mayor Williams listens to questions at subcommittee hearing on the Hill.
CAPTION: Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said Congress might be tempted to intervene in the revamping of the school board. At left is Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).