Thursday, June 10, 2004

How many politicians does it take to replace a light bulb they broke?

Apparently more than we can count on.

It appears it takes at least four D.C. politicians — the mayor, the D.C. Council chairman, a council committee chairman and the school board president — to fly across the country (using precious public money) to pursue one candidate for what is arguably the most important job in the District: public schools superintendent.

And we wonder about government waste. The way these folks throw around other people’s money is amazing.

Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective and productive to bring the candidates for school superintendent to the place where they will be employed? Oops, tried that already.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams is a peculiar politician. He says education is such a priority that he’s ready to stake his political future on it. But he didn’t bother to stay stateside to greet the last superintendent candidate, even though the mayor claimed it was necessary to pay him more than a half-million dollars.

That candidate, Rudolf Crew, felt “dissed” by the mayor and flew south to sunny Florida.

To save face, the fumbling D.C. contingency flew west this week to coastal California with a $350,000 salary to offer the next superintendent-in-waiting.

It appears that the globe-trotting Mr. Williams cannot conduct important city business unless he’s not in the city. No wonder former Mayor Marion Barry feels emboldened to step into the political arena again.

All of this leads one civic activist to pose a question: Should D.C. voters be offended by a mayor who dismisses their objections to his school takeover plan but is willing to drop it when an outsider — a prospective employee, at that — opposes it?

Who’s playing whom here?

First off, this red-eye junket will not provide Teflon Tony with the damage control he seeks to ease his embarrassment over losing yet another battle to the D.C. Council. The mayor simply does not have the votes to create a Cabinet-level education agency under his control, and his veto of a council vote for an elected school board will be overridden.

“I want to make sure that the governance of the school system over the next four years is stable,” said Carl A. Cohn, 58, the superintendent candidate du jour.

You can’t blame Mr. Cohn for wanting stability and assurances about whom he would call boss before moving his family 3,000 miles to head the perpetually beleaguered D.C. school system of 64,200 pupils and 167 hot properties. The District’s parents, students and future employers want the same stability and assurances.

Mr. Cohn, now a teacher at the University of Southern California, told The Washington Times that he views improving the performance of D.C. schools with “missionary zeal.”

“I think it’s important, whether it’s me or somebody else, that the youngsters in the nation’s capital are not left behind,” he said.

Mr. Cohn’s most promising asset is that he demonstrated staying power as superintendent of the 95,000-pupil Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District, which showed vast improvement in most academic areas during his 10-year tenure.

Improving reading scores for elementary school students here as he did in Long Beach would be his first and most important priority, Mr. Cohn told The Washington Post.

That will be a tall order, given that classroom jobs — including those for reading specialists — are on the budget chopping block in elementary schools, where they are needed most.

Ultimately, whoever is hired must have “missionary zeal” to deal with the cast of characters who have perpetuated the problems that have plagued this school system for decades.

The District has not been kind to superintendents. As far back as the tenures of Barbara Sizemore, Franklin L. Smith and Andrew E. Jenkins, controversy has dogged this school system’s leaders. Only Floretta Dukes McKenzie enjoyed some stability.

Regrettably, this school district lost the able Arlene C. Ackerman, who was run out by political forces when she tried to bring some equity to the school system. Paul L. Vance was merely a baby sitter. Outgoing interim Superintendent Alfreda Massey discovered early enough that she had too many bosses and got out while the getting out was good.

Even an Army general got buried in the trenches of this school system.

Why? Too much micromanaging by meddling politicians who talk a lot but deliver little. Too many “reform” experiments imposed by interlopers. Too many union officials trying to line their pockets. Too few parents crying foul and demanding better.

Still, community activist Terry Lynch of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations is “very optimistic” about the prospect of hiring a superintendent of Mr. Cohn’s caliber.

“Perhaps, despite our worst efforts, we may have chanced upon the right person at the right time and stumbled our way to a person who can save us from ourselves,” Mr. Lynch said.

Meanwhile, the grass grows higher at certain schools, teachers grow wearier, principals try to plan for next year before the end of this school year — and more students fall behind.

How many politicians will it take to fix a school system they broke? We are losing count.

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