- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Congressional and District leaders yesterday called for changing the city’s troubled school system after a series of scandals and setbacks, the most recent a national survey that gave D.C. students failing math and reading grades.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released a survey Wednesday that found the D.C. public-school system ranked at or near the bottom in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math skills.

The test results have prompted city and federal officials to call for changes in how the system educates its students.

“These test scores reaffirm why parents in D.C. need options and children trapped in underperforming and failing public schools need other choices,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the District appropriations subcommittee, said yesterday.

“We can’t afford to wait any longer to provide children in D.C. with the opportunity to receive a better education,” said Mr. Frelinghuysen, who favors a school-voucher program in the District.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, another supporter of the voucher system, also wants more oversight of the 67,000-student school system.

“These test scores continue to disappoint, and there is really no excuse for being so far below the national average in math and reading.” said Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mr. Williams. “We should be striving for excellence, and we’re well short of proficiency at this point. Something needs to change in terms of the schools’ governance and how we oversee and manage the school system.”

Mr. Williams wants to appoint every school board member or turn the school system into a city agency under his control. Right now, five of the nine board members are elected, and four are appointed by Mr. Williams.

The report released Wednesday is only the latest incident that has frustrated the mayor.

Former Superintendent Paul L. Vance unexpectedly quit his job last month. He took over city schools three years ago and was the District’s fifth superintendent since 1995.

In October, former Washington Teachers Union President Barbara Bullock pleaded guilty for her role in embezzling more than $4 million in teacher-retirement dues. Seven others have been charged in the scandal, including Gwendolyn Hemphill, the union’s former executive assistant and co-chairwoman for Mr. Williams’ 2002 re-election campaign.

Last week, the school system announced plans to eliminate 771 administrative and teaching positions, including as many as 500 teachers because of a $21 million budget deficit.

Interim Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie announced Wednesday evening that the school system had found enough money to avoid teacher layoffs but said an unspecified number of administrative jobs still would be cut.

Mr. Williams joined D.C. Council members in pledging government money to avoid the layoffs, but he still is upset about the system’s financial mismanagement.

The latest scandal involves bonuses given shortly before Mr. Vance’s departure to senior administration officials, including Chief Operating Officer Louis Erste and Chief Public Information Officer Linda Wharton Boyd.

Mr. Erste and Miss Boyd received bonuses of $22,500 each from Mr. Vance while school administrators were considering the widespread layoffs. The Washington Post reported the bonuses yesterday.

D.C. school officials referred questions about Mr. Erste and Miss Boyd’s job status to school-system attorneys, who did not return phone calls.

Still, not everybody thinks the scandals, failing grades and budget shortfalls are reason enough for Mr. Williams to take over the school system.

“If you’re not committed to the school system, then you propose things like taking the schools over, which isn’t a real solution,” said D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat.

“The solution is not to shift who’s on top,” he said. “We just changed the structure of the school system three years ago. Now the mayor wants to come back three years later and do it again, when there’s been no real progress in between.”

James Brocks, head of the Washington Teachers Union’s political committee, agrees.

He said Mr. Williams has wanted to take over the school “since Day One.”

“The mayor hasn’t proven he can run his own agencies, so now he wants to take over the schools?” he asked. “It’s not going to work.”

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