- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

District voters should punch "no" on their ballots in the November general election if the hybrid governance structure for the Board of Education is placed before them. No significant change is likely to come from the configuration of five elected members and four mayoral-appointed members a compromise proposed by D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, council member Kevin Chavous and Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Frankly, this hybrid is destined to perpetuate the infighting and blurred accountability that has plagued the school board for more than 20 years. It is a mediocre response to a serious crisis: Tens of thousands of children and youths are being handicapped each year by a poorly managed system, decades behind in its implementation of the latest educational methods and technologies. But, instead of bold, decisive action, District elected officials are happy rearranging chairs.

"It's very disappointing that we saw the political process work this way," says Rod Boggs, general counsel for Parents United and director of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Mr. Boggs had supported the mayor's and council members Jack Evans' and Kathy Patterson's original proposal for an all-appointed, five-member board.

Claims now by elected officials that this elected-appointed hydra provides "focused accountability" and "clear roles and responsibility" are delusions, born of browbeating and arm-twisting by financial control board Chairman Alice Rivlin and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, both of whom seem more interested in protecting territorial rights and political entitlement than in advancing a sound governance structure. Too often Mrs. Norton and other elected officials package important debates in the District in terms of how best to prevent congressional intervention.

Leaders who act essentially out of fear, rather than in the best interest of their constituents, are more dangerous than those whom they cast as enemies and overlords.

Some officials and residents who cling to the old governance model ask: What is wrong with it? For starters, the skills and expertise of members is woeful. Many of the persons elected to office, while well-meaning citizens, lack the requisite management, financial, and educational policy-making experience necessary to guide the system toward major achievements. Additionally, many persons elected to the Board of Education too often see it as a precursor to election to the city council, resulting in a highly politicized operation. Other members not intent on creating a political legacy are looking for employment.

What's more, the current structure permits the board to operate in a universe unto itself. That is, it is independent. Except for overseeing its budget there is little the council or the mayor can do about D.C. Public Schools. The council can, as it has done during the past year, provide rigorous oversight, but in the final analysis, the superintendent of schools reports to the Board of Education, which for all intents and purposes is neither a part of the executive branch nor a feature of the legislative branch. This kind of nebulous accountability has remained in place even under the financial control board, which allegedly was created to help repair and renovate the city's fiscal, management, and governance systems.

None of the aforementioned problems is resolved by the hybrid. In fact, they are exacerbated. For example, the four appointed members undoubtedly will have some allegiance to the mayor. The five popularly elected members, responding to pressures of the constituents who placed them in office, come with another agenda and set of operating principles. This is a recipe for infighting. Currently the hydra still provides that the superintendent reports to the Board of Education not the mayor. Consequently, an executive hoping to link schools with other programs designed to improve the overall general welfare of youths and children in this city would be forced to plead its case to the autonomous school board. Historically, pleas haven't gotten the executive anywhere. In at least one instance, this mayor couldn't even compel the current superintendent to attend his cabinet retreat.

Optimistically, Mr. Boggs thinks the plan to reform District schools still can be saved. He says the community can scout out qualified reform-minded candidates. Moreover, the council could give the mayor the authority to hire and fire the superintendent, which does not require a charter amendment.

"If they are willing to concede the authority it would go a long way to ameliorate the impact," says Mr. Boggs, adding that otherwise the mayor could be put in a "bad situation where he is more to blame for what happens" in the schools. Residents will think him responsible because he has board appointees, but truthfully, he will lack the legal authority to effect educational policy and schools operation.

Optimism is admirable. But, without clearer lines of authority and accountability, voters should reject the pabulum they are being served. After waiting nearly two decades to get elected officials fully focused on public schools, they have a right to expect more than the lukewarm mush offered by a too-timid mayor and city council. Leadership, a friend once said, is an affirmative thing. It requires courage, convictions, and a willingness to fight for one's beliefs and principles even in the face of possible loss.

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