- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has backed off a plan to take over the city’s struggling public school system, citing the need for immediate progress toward reforms and a lack of political support on the D.C. Council.

“At the present time, [Mr. Williams] feels that we would spend too much time on that effort and not enough on reforming the schools,” said Tony Bullock, a spokesman for the mayor.

In September, the mayor floated a proposal that the council give him authority to appoint all members of the school board, which currently is a hybrid of elected and appointed members, or make the independent school system a city agency so he can appoint a superintendent. But a self-imposed deadline to present a proposal passed at the end of the year with no plan in place.

“Rather than engage in a yearlong campaign to change the government and convert the schools to a city agency, I think the mayor is saying he’d rather get to work on reforms,” Mr. Bullock said yesterday. He said Mr. Williams will announce his plans for school reforms in the coming months, adding that the mayor made a “practical and pragmatic decision” not to “press for a takeover.”

The school system, with about 65,000 students, had a budget of $745 million this year.

Despite massive spending, the school system continues to be plagued by oversight problems, declining enrollment, crumbling facilities, escalating violence and poor academic achievement among students, leading some to say Mr. Williams suggested his proposal out of frustration at the pace of reforms.

But the Senate passage Thursday of a school-voucher program endorsed by Mr. Williams worth $40 million annually for the next five years, coupled with the departure in November of former schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance, seemed to drain momentum for the mayor to pursue the plan.

“I don’t think it’s going to materialize,” said D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat and a member of the council’s education committee.

Interim schools Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie has received generally positive reviews thus far and has the support of several members of the school board in her quest to take over the job on a permanent basis.

Mr. Bullock said Mr. Williams supports the idea announced by the school board Wednesday night of a national search for a new superintendent. The mayor, along with several council members and school officials, would serve on a search committee.

Mr. Fenty, who has opposed the takeover plan since Mr. Williams announced his intentions in September, said the lingering questions about the future of the school system could jeopardize the city’s chances of finding a viable superintendent candidate.

“There’s no need for a change of the governing structure. There’s a need for a new superintendent,” he said. “They don’t want to come into a fractious situation, and there’s nothing more fractious than not knowing who your boss is going to be.”

Eric Rogers, a spokesman for D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the council’s education committee, agreed that council members who may have supported such a plan in September are less likely to do so now.

“I think it’s not going to go through,” he said. “I think the mayor has realized it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach.”

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