At the last of seven public hearings yesterday on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's plan to take over the D.C. public schools, a majority of D.C. Council members voiced approval for the proposal, but several also indicated support for giving the Board of Education more power than Fenty (D) intended.
His 48-page proposal would strip the board of much of its authority and would allow the mayor to hire and fire the school superintendent.
Several council members suggested that they favor amendments that could allow the board, instead of the mayor, to appoint a chief state education officer and a school ombudsman.
Fenty's testimony brought a series of exhaustive public hearings to a close. Starting with the first hearing Jan. 18 and ending about 3:30 p.m. yesterday, the council heard more than 61 hours of public testimony from at least 300 witnesses, including dozens of students from public, private and charter schools and dropouts who appeared before the council on a Saturday.
"I must say that I'm glad that it's about to be over," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "It's time. It really is time to act. No need for further studies. . . . Now, it's up to the council. Let's go."
But council members first had questions and recommendations for Fenty yesterday -- three hours' worth.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) was the first member to suggest that the school board could hire the state education officer who would oversee early childhood education, adult education, health requirements and other matters. "This would allow not only an elected board to stay in place . . . but it also would give, I think, some real authority," he said.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) suggested giving the school board more control by giving it more to oversee. "I do think there is something to be said for assigning more state education responsibility to the state board of education, whether that is things from graduation requirements to curriculum to teacher education standards, so on," he said. "That won't inhibit your ability to run the schools themselves."
He also questioned why the proposed ombudsman, who would field complaints from parents and others, would report to the deputy mayor of education, instead of the state education board, under Fenty's plan. Catania suggested that the mayor could fire an ombudsman who was critical of the mayor's control of the schools.
The questions appeared to tackle the concerns of critics that the school board would have too little authority and that the mayor would have too much.
Some residents have called for a referendum on the plan. Others have asked Gray to delay the vote on the issue until after the May 1 special election to fill the unexpired terms of Gray, the former Ward 7 council member, and Fenty, the former Ward 4 council member, so that those communities are represented. Council members do not seem inclined to grant either request.
Gray said he plans to schedule a vote for April, using next month to make amendments that council members recommend.
In an interview after the hearing, Fenty said he will spend the next month lobbying the council. "My job is to keep convincing the council," he said. "I never count votes before they happen."
He said he hoped the council would keep the "main tenets" of his bill intact. "There will be amendments, but we hope and expect they will not be to the guts of the legislation," he said.
Fenty also wants the council to move quickly. "Expediency is everything. The lack of success in the system has gone on too long," he said. "Logistically, we need to get moving to gear up for next [school] year."