The city's schools were in terrible shape, and the elected school board wasn't making them better. The board was so torn by personal squabbles, with superintendents quitting or being fired and student test scores slumping, that federal officials temporarily seized control of the school system. Then the mayor, bucking complaints that he was killing democracy, moved to scrap school board elections for good and appoint the panel he wanted.

Washington in 2000? No, Cleveland in 1997. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's quest to appoint the school board has arisen from circumstances akin to those faced by Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White three years ago, and by several other big-city mayors who are forcing dizzying shifts in who holds the power to educate children.

"There is a move around the country to reassess school governance in our larger systems, and the feeling is something is fundamentally wrong," said Michael Usdan, president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. More than 90 percent of school boards are elected, he said, but growing numbers of cities have begun letting their mayors appoint board members or exert other influence to fix schools in order "to retain and attract young middle-class families."

In the District, the D.C. Council's education committee is scheduled to debate the merits today of competing bills to restructure the school system's governance, including proposals that the mayor appoint the school board and superintendent.

Despite community leaders who decry this growing practice as anti-democratic, officials in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago and Detroit say their school systems have seemed more focused on improving learning since the mayors were given new powers. Detroit's takeover is only a few months old, but test scores have risen in Cleveland, Boston and Chicago. Educators in those cities say the lack of political infighting has made it easier to launch large summer schools, remove bad principals and adopt nationally recognized reform programs--crucial ingredients for fixing troubled schools.

In this midwestern city, which Williams has cited as a model of urban reform, a new, hard-working appointed board and a dynamic schools chief have won the allegiance of many parents and teachers. But some of Mayor White's allies fear he may lose his new authority if he can't overturn a recent state court decision ordering a voter referendum this year on the change in school governance.

Cleveland is Washington's near twin in size, ethnic character and number of poor schoolchildren. The power shift here began in 1996 when a federal judge, overseeing the school system because of a long-standing desegregation order, put the city under state control to resolve a financial crisis. The seven-member elected school board had a series of problems, with 11 different superintendents over 18 years, including one whose suicide friends blamed in part on distress over board actions.

When the state legislature gave White the power to name a new board and a superintendent, elected school board member Shirley Hawk was relieved. "People had been using the board as a political steppingstone," she said, voicing a criticism heard in the nation's capital. "They could not have cared less about the children."

But Stanley E. Tolliver, a veteran lawyer and former Cleveland school board president, fought the move in court, saying the new system unconstitutionally deprived citizens of their right to vote. "It was the epitome of Republican right-wingism," he said, noting that the authorizing legislation came from a GOP governor and GOP-controlled legislature.

White picked veteran New York City school administrator Barbara Byrd-Bennett as chief executive officer, a new term for superintendent that many of the mayor-appointed systems have adopted. She and the new board cite improvements in attendance and state test scores as signs the change is having an effect, but Cleveland still ranks last in Ohio in achievement levels.

School governance experts argue that both appointed and elected boards have successes and failures. "I'm not skeptical about appointed boards--I'm kind of agnostic about them," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the District-based Council of Great City Schools. "There are some appointed boards that, after they've been in power a long time, start to act like an elected board. They get very fractured and start squabbling."

According to Casserly and other school-watchers, cities where mayoral takeovers have led to progress share certain characteristics: a failing public education system, years of deadlock and infighting by those who govern it and a politically powerful mayor who works closely with his handpicked superintendent.

In contrast, the mayors of New York and Los Angeles--the nation's two largest cities--have recently been charged with playing politics for using political allies on the school boards to oust superintendents who have fallen out of favor.

Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a business-led partnership with the school system, said the takeover is working in that city "because [Mayor] Tom Menino . . . really wants his legacy to feature school reform."

As an aide to then-Mayor Raymond Flynn, Sullivan helped fashion Boston's 1992 switch from an elected to a mayor-appointed Schools Committee. He said he had "deep misgivings" about the loss of an elected panel but believed a new approach was necessary.

Superintendent Thomas Payzant, who sits on Menino's Cabinet, previously headed systems in other cities where elected school boards had taxing authority and controlled their own budgets. In Boston, like Washington, funding is up to the mayor and council--an arrangement that Payzant said creates the need for both a mayor-appointed board and strong ties between the superintendent and the mayor.

Payzant said the appointed committee structure keeps the panel focused on setting policy, not the parochial micromanaging of individual schools that D.C. board members are often pressured by their constituents to do.

"The meetings are really spent on educational issues, and not responding to every special interest that may be promoted by one group or another," he said.

But the setup, Sullivan and Payzant say, allows activists to criticize the school system as less responsive to public concerns. Jean McGuire, a 10-year member of the now-defunct elected board in Boston and a critic of the new system, said that parents rarely attend meetings of the appointed panel and that major changes are often made without much resident input.

"There's no public discussion. There's no discourse," said McGuire, who heads Boston's program of voluntary busing between city and suburban schools. "There's no town meeting atmosphere."

Similarly, in Chicago, a 1995 mayoral takeover has neutered the power of education advocacy groups--Schools Chief Executive Paul Vallas likes to call them "special-interest groups"--and has dampened the exuberance of formerly successful local school councils, observers there said.

At the same time, the decision to allow the mayor to appoint a five-member school board and the schools chief executive--and to give the schools chief broad powers over personnel and purchasing--has started to rid the mammoth Chicago system of cronyism, corruption and a host of other problems.

Mayor Richard M. Daley has poured huge sums into rebuilding crumbling school buildings, and Vallas has taken drastic steps to improve test scores, retain failing students and boost academic achievement through massive summer and after-school tutorials.

"There's been a real 'no more business as usual' attitude," said Anne Hallett, executive director of the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

"You need a mayor who cares about the schools and is willing to put his weight and clout behind it," said Linda Lenz, editor of Catalyst, a journal that tracks school reform in Chicago. "You can have the structure, and if you don't have the right person, forget it."

The Michigan legislature put extra emphasis on the Detroit schools chief by giving that person the powers, including the hiring and firing of personnel, that school boards usually exercise. Six members of the newly appointed board were named last year by Mayor Dennis W. Archer, a Williams confidant and mentor, but a seventh was appointed by the state school superintendent. That appointee may, if he chooses, veto any schools chief selected by the rest of the board.

In the District, the governing structures proposed by Williams and D.C. Council members would give less power to the mayor than mayors in those other cities have. Williams wants a citizens committee to propose nominees to the school board--as is done in Boston and Cleveland--and says his choices should be confirmed or rejected by the council. In the other cities, the mayor has the final say.

Mayorally controlled systems were imposed on these cities by their state legislatures, at the mayors' urging. In the District, any change must be approved by the council and D.C. voters.

Williams has said he will not replace Superintendent Arlene Ackerman if he is given the authority he seeks because he believes she has made substantial progress in her 20 months on the job. But he would push her to hire a strong chief of operations, with expertise in management, to tackle long-standing problems with payroll, procurement and facility repairs.

Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the education committee, is urging a compromise that would let Williams appoint the superintendent but would preserve a seven- or nine-member elected school board with power to confirm that appointee. Such a setup, Casserly said, would be unique.

"Each city is making this stuff up as they go along," he said. "So each situation is going to look a little different. And no city is really going to serve as the definitive role model."

Education Bills

A summary of proposed bills being weighed by the D.C. Council. All but the Orange legislation would have to be approved by D.C. voters:

Mayor Anthony A. Williams has proposed abolishing the 11-member elected Board of Education and giving the mayor the power to appoint both the superintendent and a five-member, policy-setting school board. Candidates for the board would be nominated by a citizens' committee and would have to be confirmed by the D.C. Council.

Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) has proposed a seven-person school board with four members elected and three appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. The mayor would hire and fire the superintendent.

Council member Kathy Patterson (D -- Ward 3) has proposed a five-member school board, appointed by the mayor, with the power to hire and fire the superintendent.

Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's education committee, has proposed a nine-member elected school board with the authority to set school policy and hire and fire the superintendent. The president of the board would be elected at large. The top two finishers in each ward primary would compete against each other in citywide elections for each of the eight ward seats.

Council member Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) has proposed maintaining the 11-member school board except for changing one of the three at-large seats to the president's seat. Currently, the board chooses its own president at the start of each calendar year.