- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2000

Despite soft proclamations of victory in Tuesday's divisive and indecisive special election, District of Columbia residents are still left hanging as to what direction school reform will take.
Once the absentee votes are tallied next week and residents learn how their school board will look, neither the "yes" camp nor the "no" camp really carried the day, say many involved in the election.
"There is no winner here," said Larry Gray, legislative chairman for the D.C. Congress of PTAs, who campaigned against the measure. "Even if the [initiative] passes, the results show that this isn't a mandate for the mayor or for the hybrid school board. It's a divide."
Still, Mayor Anthony A. Williams proclaimed a victory for the city and his future direction over its schools.
"When every vote has been counted, I'm confident we're going to win this election," he said yesterday. "The high turnout shows this is an issue that people care about. And if yesterday's turnout was any indication, we have a lot of allies."
More than 38,000 of the city's 332,000 registered voters more than 12 percent took to the polls Tuesday to decide whether the city should have an 11-member elected school board or a nine-member hybrid of elected and appointed members.
With all of Tuesday's ballots counted, the vote was 19,643 for the change to 18,795 against. With a difference of only 848 votes and almost 2,200 absentee and special ballots left to count, the outcome could shift.
If the vote holds up, the 11-member elected school board would 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 in November. The president of the board would be elected at-large in November.
The change would remain in effect for four years, after which the council would decide whether to keep the new makeup.
If voters rejected the change, they would decide as usual whether to return to office the six members who are up for re-election in November.
The present board, instituted in 1971, includes one elected member from each of eight wards plus three at-large members. The initiative proposes drawing up four school districts by merging Wards 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8.
The campaign promoting the referendum spent an estimated $144,000, according to the campaign spokesman.
The camp opposed to the referendum spent an estimated $2,000, Mr. Gray said.
The special election ended a three-month campaign that included court hearings and charges of electoral improprieties.
The vote split the city in half along geographical and socioeconomic lines. The western half of the city, predominantly white and upper income, voted overwhelmingly "yes"; the eastern portion of the city, made up predominantly of minority residents, voted overwhelmingly "no."
"We warned them about the polarizing effect this would have," said Mr. Gray. "Instead of working together to help the schools, we fought a divisive battle."
Now city leaders are pledging to help unite the city behind a reform agenda to help the ailing schools.
"We need to address this," said Mr. Williams of the divided city. "We need to bring everyone together for a common objective."
"People really had some differences in this issue, [but] we all want to get to the same destination," said council Chairman Linda Cropp, at-large Democrat. "Our children deserve for us to try an awful lot of different ways."
Mr. Williams and Mrs. Cropp yesterday emphasized their desire to work with opponents of the charter amendment to draw out a "consensus slate of candidates," foreshadowing the mayor's push to wield more influence on the board.
While many city leaders called for healing, many opponents of the change remained bitter.
"I wouldn't have minded an honest campaign with an honest message to bring about real reform," said David A. Catania, at-large Republican.
"That's not what this was about," Mr. Catania said. "There is no comprehensive reform package to support this initiative. This is a power grab that masks as accountability."
Opponents of the initiative argued that the current structure is necessary to preserve a democratic institution in a city that does not have voting representation in Congress. They predicted the initiative would further exacerbate divisions on the board.
Supporters of the plan said it would lead to better management of the schools by being able to offer experts a place on the board.
Some city leaders stressed that this was about more than a vote.
"The real message is that the people want an improved system of education in this city," said council member Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat. "They want something better."

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