D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposal to gain more control over the city's school system has undergone several changes, and a number of them can be traced to the suggestions of D.C. Council members whose votes Williams is courting.
The legislation would create an all-elected school board to handle issues normally overseen by state boards of education, a provision that was added to attract support from Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). The salaries of school board members would double, to $30,000 a year, another change prompted by Graham.
It would limit the scope of future school labor agreements, as recommended by David A. Catania (R-At Large). And another section of the legislation calls for the school system to ensure that all of the city's 3- and 4-year-olds are prepared for kindergarten, an issue that was important to Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5).
The mayor's staff said his plan was enhanced by the council members' ideas. But council members who oppose the legislation, along with some school activists, said the bill was larded with disparate measures aimed more at attracting votes than improving education.
Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) called the mayor's legislation "a sort of a Christmas tree." Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who chairs the council's education committee, said the legislation seems aimed at "the political interests of those of us involved" rather than at the best interests of children.
Mary Levy, a longtime activist with Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, noted that none of the new provisions in the bill has been the subject of public hearings. She said several of the changes have not been carefully thought through and may have unintended consequences.
"It might turn out to be a great thing," said Levy, whose group advocates putting aside the mayor's plan and leaving the current school oversight arrangement in place. "But it might turn out to be some Rube Goldberg contraption that would fall apart. Who knows?"
The mayor's staff said that the concerns of Graham, Catania and Orange improved the bill and that making changes to attract council support is the way the legislative process is supposed to work.
"There were a lot of very good suggestions from some of the council members," said Tony Bullock, a spokesman for the mayor. "We're going to keep working until we have a bill that's got seven or more votes, and then we're going to get it passed."
Even with the concessions he has made, Williams (D) is having trouble gaining support from a majority of the 13 council members for his plan, which would give the mayor the power to hire and fire the school superintendent.
Williams initially proposed stripping the school board of its power to control school policy and making it an advisory body to the mayor. The council rejected that legislation in April, and in May gave final approval to a bill that would leave the current school board -- which consists of five elected members and four appointed by the mayor -- in place through 2006, after which it would become an all-elected body. The mayor then vetoed the council's measure.
Williams argued that giving the mayor, rather than the school board, control over the superintendent would lead to more rapid improvement in the school system and clarify who is ultimately accountable for its performance. Opponents of the plan said that Williams has done a poor job managing various agencies and that there is no reason to think he would do any better with the schools.
A coalition of activist groups, including Parents United, argues for leaving the current structure in place for another four years to promote stability and help attract a superintendent to replace Paul L. Vance, who quit in November.
When he voted against the mayor's plan in April, Graham said he was concerned that it stripped the school board of all its powers. He also has argued that a higher salary for board members is needed to attract strong candidates for the panel.
The mayor then proposed to double board members' salaries and to create a "state board of education" that would replace the current board. The new board would be in charge of such matters as setting goals for student achievement, rewards and sanctions for school performance and requirements for teacher standards and licensing.
But now the provision that the mayor added for Catania -- the measure dealing with collective bargaining agreements -- is giving Graham pause.
Catania has said the school system cannot be improved without new labor agreements that allow more flexibility in dealing with teachers and other employees. Over the opposition of unions, the mayor has concurred and included a provision limiting the scope of future labor agreements to wages and benefits. Contracts no longer would cover such issues as class sizes, the number of parent-teacher conferences and other rules of work that Catania contends are too cumbersome.
However the final version of the bill turns out, council members said they are growing frustrated that the debate on school oversight seems far from resolved and that it is making the vacant superintendency less attractive.
"It's just chaos," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4). "This is really the worst way to go about hiring a superintendent."