- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2000

Arlene Ackerman has announced that she will be leaving the school superintendent's post here for the one in San Francisco. She is leaving because D.C. Public Schools are micromanaged by the school board, the D.C. Council, the mayor and the control board; because she has little control over the school system's financial management and procurement systems; and because her legitimate complaints were viewed as excuses. Officials knew for more than a week that she was leaving, but their 11th-hour efforts to keep her here were way too late.

There is, as you might imagine, considerable chatter now about how to build on the measurable progress Mrs. Ackerman made, find a successor and open the 2000-2001 school year on time. All the usual suspects want in on the search process. But D.C. government has such a bad management reputation and the school system has so many black marks, it will be difficult to find an excellent educator willing to face the political chutes and ladders that Mrs. Ackerman and most of her recent predecessors have.

The leaders of this city now seem to understand that and appeared quite amenable to changing their ways in recent days. The mayor, council and control board all said they would try to do what they could to grant the superintendent more control over school matters, and the elected school board even said Mrs. Ackerman's departure would be a loss. If, however, they were as sincere as they wanted us to believe, they would offer the interim and future superintendent the same powers they said they would grant to Mrs. Ackerman.

The No. 1 problem with D.C. Public Schools is oversight. The superintendent has to do the bidding of the school board, the council, the mayor and the control board. They want to decide assignments for principals and teachers, when textbooks and other classroom resources are bought, who gets laid off, hired and fired, which schools get renovated and which will be closed, and they want to decide which firms get school contracts and what the school lunch menus should be. Those decisions must be made by the superintendent, who, by the way, is the chief executive officer of the school system.

While Mrs. Ackerman, whose official last day is July 17, said she will make sure her pending departure has no ill effects on students and teachers, her deputy, Elois Brooks, is now primarily responsible for ensuring the transition is a smooth one. That should not be terribly difficult for Mrs. Brooks, who worked with Mrs. Ackerman in Seattle before coming here.

Some officials are of the mind that a national search for a new superintendent must be launched and launched quickly. That may just add to the chaos. They should at least consider giving Mrs. Brooks the job on an interim basis and considering her along with other candidates for the job. But the point of Mrs. Ackerman's experience is that all the other acting superintendents on the council and other local government bodies should give the real superintendent a chance to do her job.

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