- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

After accusations of electoral impropriety, court hearings, vigorous debate and 11th hour pitches, District of Columbia voters today will decide how the school board will look.

They must decide whether to approve an unprecedented hybrid of appointed and elected members or maintain the "status quo" with a fractious 11-member elected board.

Underlying the question of the board composition is how to bring reform to the troubled school system through the ballot box, the mayor, the D.C. Council or the financial control board.

The current school board was stripped of its power four years ago because of infighting and the poor state of the school system, say supporters of the initiative.

Opponents say changing the shape of the school board would formalize the power the mayor, council and financial control board already have over the schools.

Regardless, voters must decide how to make sense of a struggling school system, diluted in its authority and in three weeks left without a superintendent.

"We need to settle this question," said one activist. "Voters need to know what they are voting for in November's [school board] elections."

The current 11-member board, instituted in 1971, includes one elected member from each of the city's eight wards and three at-large members.

The referendum is asking voters to change the Home Rule Charter by approving a nine-member school board with four elected members and four appointed by the mayor and approved by the council. The president of the board, currently elected by school board members, would be elected at large if the referendum passes.

To accomplish that, the council proposes drawing up four school districts of two wards each merging Wards 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8.

The measure also includes a "sunset" clause that would allow the council, after four years, to decide whether the school board would be elected, appointed or continue on as a hybrid.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who favors the hybrid board, was stumping hard yesterday at Dupont Circle. He spent part of the day greeting Metro riders with a pamphlet asking them to vote "yes" on the referendum.

Mr. Williams said he's confident it will pass, because it's "crucial for the future of our city" to deliver better education for D.C. children.

Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton concurred. "You can't have a new city with the same school board," she said. "The old system has failed."

But residents and city activists rallied last night at Union Temple Baptist Church.

"It's a power grab on the part of the city council," said Larry Gray, legislative chairman for the D.C. Congress of Parent Teachers Associations.

"This debate is about politics, not classrooms. The hybrid will have a negative effect on the school system and on the citizens' voting rights."

While the campaign for the special referendum began only a few months ago, the question of how to fix the public school system has persisted for decades.

Opponents of the hybrid board say this latest attempt is a diversion from what really needs to happen in the system.

They say it is necessary to retain democratic institutions in a city that does not have voting representation in Congress and is dictated to by congressional representatives. They also argue that the hybrid won't change anything, but instead will further disenfranchise District voters, particularly those east of the Anacostia River whose districts will merge.

"Tomorrow I am going to cast my ballot for democracy," said council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, who voted for the hybrid in February for fear of congressional intervention.

"There is no data to show that a nonelected board improves the education of our children."

Supporters of the elected board say the initiative will further exacerbate divisions on the board, with the appointed faction siding with their patrons, the mayor and council while the elected board continues to consider their constituencies.

A recent poll indicates the District's voters are almost evenly divided on the subject while 16 percent remain undecided.

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