- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

Mayor Anthony Williams, who, come election time in 2002, will have to show voters that schools greatly improved during his time at the helm, is of the mind that an elected school board is not necessarily in the best interests of D.C. children. Some members of the D.C. Council believe likewise, as do parents around the city who are availing themselves of every opportunity to enroll their children in charter, private and parochial schools where the focus is on children, not politics.

For the most part, the concerns are directed at the embattled Board of Education, whose petty bickering, heavy-handed management and tendency to mistakenly lay blame on whoever happens to be superintendent proves that even voters make bad choices. So the mayor and others are finally giving serious thought to a pertinent idea: abolish the elected school board and grant ultimate oversight to the mayor and the council.

The very thought of tinkering with a hallmark of D.C. democracy is, in and of itself, a political gamble, and the fact that two deadlines are close at hand means officials must immediately engage in public discourse and follow through with all deliberate speed. The first deadline is Jan. 24, the last day to submit a charter amendment measure that would appear on the May ballot. That is an unrealistic time frame, considering the fact that the council would have to approve legislation, the mayor sign it and Congress approve it in less than three weeks from today. A more reasonable target is the September ballot, which means proponents have until June 14 to get the requisite nods. The second and equally important deadline is June 30, when the school board is poised to regain its exclusive authority over public schools.

As for the politics, suffice it to say the stakes are high. While there was discussion during the 1998 mayoral and council campaigns concerning school governance, few candidates were bold enough to admit that the current structure has failed tens of thousands of D.C. youths.

Over the course of the past two decades, D.C. Public Schools have had more than a half-dozen superintendents, overindulgent budgets, blown budgets, little accountability, rotten facilities and now legendary squabbling. Consider the past 12 months: A majority of board members voted to oust their president because of questionable ethics and leadership practices; the board fought over a critical white paper that outlined theirs and the superintendent's duties; threatened to fire the current superintendent because they did not hire her; and last month members could not even agree on who should be president during this pivotal year. Each instance proved the board, despite voters' attempts to do otherwise the past four years, remains, to a substantial degree, the same old board.

The crux of the matter, then, is the process of choosing board members not the personalities of the board members. An appointed board, on the other hand, forces all parties to reach a measurable level of reform because council members and the mayor could hardly afford to waste political capital on inept and politically hungry malcontents who have not in a very long, long while focused on educating children.

To be sure, the mayor's proposal to create an appointed school board contrasts considerably with council-initiated legislation that would mandate a smaller board and a citywide election of the board president. But surely, in the mayor's and the lawmakers' hearts and minds even they know voters should have the last say. And voters, believe it or not, have known for a long while that the size of the board is not the real problem.

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