The Romans understood that it was not a question of ill-bred or inadequate Christians. The political ambitions of the Christians didn't matter. So long as they were tossed into the same arena, the outcome was predictable.
Maybe Washingtonians will one day learn the same lesson with regard to school boards and superintendents.
We have to. How long can we go on believing that it is just a series of unfortunate coincidences that no superintendent since the 1958 retirement of Hobard Corning has left office without a bloody fight?
How long can we pretend that the boards that selected Carl Hansen, Hugh Scott, William Manning, Barbara Size-more and two or three acting superintendents in addition just happened to make a series of bad choices? How long can we tell ourselves that we have had a 20-year run of bad luck in selecting board members?
Don't we finally have to acknowledge what the Romans knew from the beginning: that the inevitable result of mixing lions and Christians is carnage on the arena floor?
I don't mean to imply that board members are always the bad guys and superintendents eternally innocent victims. The point is that the bloody outcome is the result of the nature of the offices, not in the moral, administrative or political short-comings of the particular officeholders.
We might have absorbed this simple truth a long time back except for the fact that other cities do manage to find board members and superintendents capable of working together. If they can do it, why can't we?
There are, I think, two reasons. First, to a much greater extent than in the cities where the system seems to work, Washington's school board seats are the acknowledged first step in launching a political career.
That doesn't mean that everyone who seeks a school board seat does so with an eye on a city council or mayoral post. It doesn't take very many politically ambitious school board members to produce the chaos that has come to be the chief hallmark of the local school system. Two or three will do quit nicely.
The second reason is that school board seat is too good a job in Washington. We pay board members too much -- upward of $18,000 a year -- and give them too many perks: secretaries, aides, drivers, researchers and so on. Indeed, only one other public school board in America -- New York City's -- has a bigger budget than the District's.
With that sort of compensation, financial and psychic, they tend to overpromise the electorate while they are seeking the position and try too hard to make their mark once they have won.
Try this for comparison: the Board of Higher Education, which used to run D.C. Teachers College, Federal City College and Washington Technical Institute, served without compensation. Its successor, the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia (formed when DCTC, FCC and WTI merged) also is unpaid. Its members are allowed a maximum of $4,000 a year in per diem in lieu of expenses. The UDC board has a staff of six.
The jobs are different, of course. The school board serves a much larger student population than the UDC board, and the problems confronting a public school system are vastly different from those involved in overseeing an university.
Still, the trustee's job is no pushover. Members meet several times a month, either in full board meetings or in working committee sessions.
The UDC board is appointed, not elected, but my guess is that that is not the crucial point. After all, it was an appointed board that hired Carl Hansen and William Manning, then tossed them aside.
The significant thing about the UDC board is that the absence of salary and perks makes the job attractive only to people whose interest is in service. At $333.33 a month, max, these people have neither the time nor the inclination to make trouble just to show who is boss.
A number of District residents, shocked by the unanticipated early retirement of Vincent Reed, or urging a return to an appointed board. Some are saying we should get rid of the board altogether.
I offer a more modest proposal: let's strip the job of its outlandish perks and cut the pay to the point where it is no longer attractive to fledgling politicians. Something like $333.33 a month.