Monday, June 26, 2000

We have been hearing a lot about the need for accountability and better schools. But accountability is one area where the mayor’s New School Leadership Committee, D.C. Agenda and associated business and charter school organizations have come up short.
The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance has found the mayor guilty for the second time since he assumed office of abusing D.C. campaign finance laws. He failed to register his principle campaign committee to properly collect and expend large quantities of special interest contributions. He used government employees on the clock, government resources, schools and school children to further his attempts to influence tomorrow’s school governance referendum.
His D.C. Agenda and City Council buddies amassed a secret campaign slush fund of over $80,000 without proper filings. One of them sits on the Emergency Advisory Board of Trustees. They have been forced to refund those special interest contributions. Other charges are likely to be filed. We will only know the extent of this corruption later. We must “Just Vote No!” tomorrow. Right now, the District’s children must be our number one special interest.
The elected school board knows that role. The board exists to serve children. That’s why it has always fought for better food and nutrition programs. Closing full service cafeterias in our schools and contracting out food services was not their policy. What kids have now is moldy food, hot food that is cold and cold food that is warm. Often they have no food worth eating. It may be their only meal of the day. Congress, Control Board and Council undermined food services to the point food rots in school warehouses while kids go hungry.
Likewise, the mayor promised an additional $14 million to fund a 1999 teacher pay raise. Instead, to pay them School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had to cut other needed programs from her regular budget. In 1998 the council required she cut 300 full-time janitors. Our kids now attend school amidst the grime and garbage on the school grounds. A dead body was overlooked at Shaw junior high school because it lacked staff to patrol school property. Adequate numbers of school employees must be paid for by the City Council. The school board advocates for those needs. The referendum takes away Board personnel powers. We say, “Just Vote No!” to removal of that authority.
Referendum proponents demonize the school board. We’ll hear more before the vote. Kevin Chavous says, “the school board has run amok.” But the board’s powers are well defined. Municipal regulations make them clear. It serves as the “primary advocate for children in the District of Columbia.” It appoints and evaluates the superintendent. It sets high standards for children. It establishes requirements for graduation. It sets contents of course and curriculum. The board adopts textbooks. It submits an annual budget with the superintendent through the mayor and advocates it before the City Council.
Other policies for which the school board should be credited includes: Pre-Columbine school security upgrades, a strong ethics policy, student discipline, attendance and truancy enforcement, local school governance of budgets, summer school for underachievers and proficient students, testing and assessments to measure academics and drop-out rates. Some critics ignore past board accomplishments or seek to stymie them.
The fact is the school board hasn’t governed schools for the last three and a half years. Remember the control board declared what was already known by our elected board. “There is a crisis in DC Schools.” They appropriated extraordinary powers to deal with the crisis and invalidated the 1996 election. The school board was subsequently given authority to charter some schools and develop school facilities policy. On both scores they have enforced businesslike accountability and guaranteed community input. Their record begs for their immediate restoration of full authority.
However, the control board has failed to fix a non-responsive procurement system. Teachers cannot get paid on time. Technology infusion has been snail paced. The drop out rate remains well above 30 percent.
Mrs. Ackerman says, “the progress we have made in our schools, by students, dedicated teachers and stakeholders, has been in spite of rather than with the support of the powers that be.” Special interests have made her tenure in D.C. difficult too.
There is only one way to return full authority of the 11 member elected school board on June 30 as agreed to in the Memoramdum of Understanding with the control board. It’s time our elected school board resumes leadership on issues affecting our children. Indeed, the kids have been waiting far too long. We must all work harder, smarter, longerand better. The first step on a cooperative path for our kids is to “Just Vote No!” tomorrow.

Larry Gray is legislative chairman of the D.C. Congress of Parent and Teacher’s Associations and co-director of the Just Say No! campaign coalition.

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