Members of the D.C. Council, faced with the threat of further congressional interference with the school system if they and Mayor Anthony A. Williams cannot agree on a plan for education reform, will propose allowing the mayor to declare a state of emergency and take over the schools for a specific period before returning power to a smaller, reconstituted elected school board.
Council members spent much of the weekend conferring about the proposal, the brainchild of member David Catania (R-At Large). After a private meeting of several council members yesterday, Catania and Education Committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) said a majority of the 13-member panel appears supportive.
Last Tuesday, the council soundly rejected Williams's proposal to take over the school system indefinitely by allowing him to appoint the school board and oversee the superintendent. The council gave preliminary approval to shrinking the Board of Education from 11 members to seven and changing how they are elected.
But Williams (D) threatened to veto that proposal, and both proponents and critics of an elected board dismissed the rest of the council's plan--to have the mayor appoint a superintendent subject to school board confirmation--as unworkable.
And on Friday, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District, warned that if the mayor and council could not settle their differences soon, members of Congress would be tempted to intervene.
Catania described the new proposal as modeled after legislation that allowed mayoral takeovers of struggling school systems in Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere. The council would assume the role of a state legislature, which critics of the plan immediately said was problematic, and would decide whether to grant the mayor's petition for a takeover based on his description of the crisis in the schools and his timetable and plan for fixing it.
The legislation, still in early draft form, would shrink the Board of Education to seven members, one elected from every two political wards, two at-large representatives and a president who is also elected citywide. But both Catania and Chavous said the council would be prepared for Williams to immediately exercise his option of asking to take over the system, which would mean the revamped school board likely would not take power for years.
"It reconnects us to democracy and to duly elected school board representatives, but . . . allows for circumstances, and this may be one, where the mayor could say, 'There is a crisis,' " Catania said. "I would hope that the mayor would see this as a plan that can get him where he wants to go."
Council efforts to fully brief Williams on the proposal over the weekend were unsuccessful. Abdusalam Omer, the mayor's chief of staff, said, "We're open for any suggestions" but added that he has reservations about the plan.
"This is legislative jargon," Omer said of the idea of the mayor petitioning the council to declare a state of emergency. "You don't need to have a legislative debate in order to figure out what our schools need. It's accountability."
The mayor will hear more about the plan today and will discuss it with council members Tuesday. The council's next vote on the various bills it is considering is Feb. 1.
Joshua Wyner, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center, whose 1999 report on school governance has been a blueprint for the debate, saw a draft of the Catania legislation yesterday morning. He said the concept of allowing Williams to immediately declare a state of emergency was appealing. But he added that he was troubled that the council would give itself the authority to grant such a petition.
"The more power the council vests in itself in this process, the more the superintendent isn't going to know who's in charge," Wyner said. "The superintendent will always be looking over [her] shoulder, wondering what the council's going to take away."