- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2000

District of Columbia residents voted yesterday by the slimmest of margins to give Mayor Anthony A. Williams the power to appoint some members of the city's school board.

Unofficial final results showed voters decided 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent in favor of the mayor's proposal that he be allowed to appoint four members of a nine-member board.

With all ballots counted, the vote was 19,643 for the change to 18,795 against. With a difference of only 848 votes, the outcome won't be decided until absentee ballots are counted July 7.

If the vote holds up, the 11-member elected school board will be replaced by a new panel in which four members would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the D.C. Council and four would be elected. The president of the board will be elected at-large.

The change would remain in effect for four years, after which the council would decide whether to keep the new makeup.

If the referendum question passes, in November voters will pick only four school board members and a board president for the reconstituted, nine-member panel. If they rejected the change, they would decide as usual whether to return to office the six of 11 members who are up for re-election.

"Now we have to focus our attention on giving our children the best education system we can," said D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, awaiting the final results with other supporters of the measure at Tunnicliff's restaurant on Capitol Hill.

Across the street at the Gallery 5 at Eastern Market, opponent Larry Gray all but conceded defeat when the morning boxes showed his side trailing by 54 percent to 46 percent.

"It always was an uphill battle," said Mr. Gray, legislative chairman for the D.C. Congress of PTAs. "They had a highly organized campaign using contributions from outside the District. It's not the kind of campaign citizens wanted nor the kind of outcome citizens wanted."

Just over 12 percent of the city's 300,000-plus registered voters helped decide yesterday whether to change the 30-year-old structure of the city's first elected body. While low, that's still better than the District's last special election and the May primary.

In precinct after precinct, poll workers reported low turnout, blaming the weather, summertime activities and a one-issue election. In Precinct 81 on Capitol Hill, less than one-fourth of registered voters ventured out to decide the school board's future. That turnout was typical in most of the 140 precincts.

"There hasn't been great turnout," Mr. Gray said at a Capitol Hill polling station. "Still, that has been good for us. I'm sensing that it's been the 'no' people braving the rain. We've made our point."

Meanwhile, passionate officials and activists tried to sway voters to vote "yes" for change or "no" to retain an all-elected board.

Leading the charge was Mr. Williams, who popped in and out of commuter areas yesterday, handing out pamphlets urging residents to vote "yes."

"My goal in the next 10 years is to have 10,000 people moving back into the city," the mayor said. "The only way to do this is to get the schools fixed. This is the right thing to do right now. We've got four or five years to do it and look and see how it works."

Mr. Williams, a Democrat, was at a birthday party last night for his mother, Virginia, and did not comment on the final tally.

Many voters clearly agreed with the mayor's proposal.

"The school board to date has not put on a very stunning performance," parent Robert Peck said. "Sometimes it's been a circus. The mayor has said he's willing to take accountability for schools, and I think we ought to give it to him."

Others were leery of giving away power in one of the few areas in which D.C. voters have a say.

"This move is wrong," teacher Jerome Brons said. "If you are unsatisfied with elected officials, then you vote for another one. You don't give [Mr. Williams] the power."

But the real question voters answered, observers say, was how to hasten real reform in the struggling public schools through the ballot box or through the mayor, council and financial control board.

The 11-member school board, instituted in 1971, includes one elected member from each of eight wards plus three at-large members. The referendum asked voters to amend the Home Rule Charter's provision for an all-elected board that in turn selects its own president.

The council proposes drawing up four school districts by merging Wards 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8.

Opponents said this latest attempt to fix a school system that has been broken for decades was a diversion and a power play. They argued that the current structure is necessary to preserve a democratic institution in a city that does not have voting representation in Congress and is dictated to by federal lawmakers who created the control board to end mismanagement and waste.

Opponents said the hybrid board won't change anything but will disenfranchise voters, particularly those east of the Anacostia whose districts would merge. They predicted the initiative would further exacerbate divisions on the board, with the appointed faction automatically siding with the mayor and council.

"This is just window dressing," said council member David A. Catania, at-large Republican. "There is no underlying change here."

Supporters of the mayor's plan including the council, control board and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting representative in Congress argued that it offered voters both qualified candidates for election and appointed experts in education and business to balance the board. They said it would lead to better management of the schools.

"I would prefer an elected board, but part of politics is we have to compromise, and this is a temporary measure and I think the reform is needed," said Mr. Chavous, chairman of the council's education committee, who joined the mayor in urging voters to approve the change.

That's an echo, opponents say, of the congressionally created control board's action in 1996 to strip the elected school board of its power because of financial mismanagement, dismal test scores, delayed openings and crumbling buildings.

The control board is scheduled to hand back control of the schools on Friday, but made clear earlier this year that it would not happen unless a better governing structure was in place.

In January, Mr. Williams began touting a plan to abolish the elected school board and put himself and the council in control. He said that in three years he would be held responsible for what happens with the schools so he should be given more authority.

But the council opposed the plan, and the debate ranged from whether the mayor should appoint the superintendent and a school board, to appointed vs. elected boards, to whether the elected board's size should decrease. In February, the council voted 7-6 in favor of establishing a hybrid board.

The debate polarized the city; Mr. Williams was accused of using his office unethically to promote the hybrid board. A court ruling meant election results could not have been counted, but the injunction was lifted Saturday.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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