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Just Vote No!
Philip Blair, Washington Peace Letter
June 2000

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Just Vote No!
By Philip Blair

The Crisis

The District of Columbia Public Schools have been thrown into a crisis by the resignation of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has accepted the Superintendent's job in the San Francisco public school system.

The loss of a superintendent should not be a disaster in a well-run system. But the Control Board, the Mayor, and the Council of the District of Columbia have created such confusion and uncertainty over DCPS governance that the possibility of recruiting a respectable new superintendent is approaching zero. It is time for citizen leadership to impose definition, demand collaboration among our elected officials, and salvage the situation.

On June 27, a special election will be held to decide on a referendum which would abolish the current eleven-member elected board of education and create a new "hybrid" board of education. The Mayor would appoint four members of this new body, with Council confirmation. The President would be elected at large, and the remaining four members would be elected in two stages: four new "super-wards" would each vote in a first round to select two candidates; the resulting eight candidates would be reduced to four (one from each super-ward) in a second city-wide election.

This is frankly acknowledged to be an experiment, for a four-year period.

The result will be the destruction of the eleven-member elected school board, the first elected governance body in the District of Columbia in modern times. The current elected Board is composed of eleven members; eight who are elected from single wards, and three at-large members. The Board elects its own President each year. The referendum would push this simple and easily understood structure over a cliff, and replace it with a complicated hodge-podge conceived in a smoke-filled room.

The Devil in the Details

The text of the referendum as it will appear on the ballot is in the box below; behind this text is a series of measures passed already by Council and soon to be passed which will require the success of the referendum in order to take effect.

PROPOSED CHARTER AMENDMENT III: "The School Governance Charter Amendment Act of 2000"

This Charter Amendment, if passed, would amend The Home Rule Act by:

  • Reducing the number of Members of the Board of Education from 11 to 9;
  • Combining eight election wards to create four new school election districts;
  • Allowing voters to elect four Members from new school election districts;
  • Allowing voters to elect one Member at-large as Board President; and
  • Allowing the Mayor to appoint four Members to be confirmed by the City Council.

The Charter Amendment will allow the Board to hire, evaluate and remove the Superintendent, establish personnel policies for hiring principals, and approve an annual budget. This Amendment allows the City Council to create a state education agency, and directs that the provision for the make-up of the new Board and the school election districts will end in four years. Thereafter, the selection and size of the Board shall be made according to local law.

This whole cumbersome and creaky proposal has two chief benefits, according to its sponsors. First, a small board is supposed to be a better board. A quick cost-benefit calculation is that reducing the size of the Board by two members is supposed to be worth at least the nearly $400,000 that the special election will cost; that is, $200,000 per member removed. But the advantage of a smaller Board is only asserted, not demonstrated. And if small is good for the Board of Education, why not for the Council itself? Why is a 13-member Council just right, and an 11-member school board too big?

Secondly, and less obviously, the proposal assumed that the real problem is the voters of the District. We voters cannot be trusted make wise choices in electing members of the Board of Education. Having the Mayor and Council select four members solves part of that problem. Not allowing a ward or a super-ward to select its own representatives without the approval of the city-wide electorate is supposed help too by making it harder for certain parts of the city to simply pick the persons they want to represent them.

Forget that we have just had an experiment in having the schools run by an appointed board, the Emergency Trustees, who have now self-destructed after a series of failures.

Common sense suggests that this proposed new arrangement will have the following perverse effects.

First, it institutionalizes factionalism as it creates two factions, the appointees and the elected members. Secondly, it raises the cost of running for the elected positions (other than president): a candidate will have to run a super-ward campaign, and then a city-wide campaign in addition. This enhances the power of donors, of special interests, and of the irresponsible large media. Thirdly, it creates confusion and uncertainty that will make it harder to recruit and elect good candidates.

The at-large election of the President of the Board is an issue on which parents and school activists disagree. Some see this as a real reform, which will minimize jockeying for power and squabbling on the Board. Others fear the inflexibility of this procedure (compared to the current system by which the members elect their own president for one-year terms). But this is a provision which can be changed, if we wish, after this referendum is rejected.

The final paragraph has three parts. The first merely reiterates the status quo: that the Board hires and fires the Superintendent, that it establishes personnel policies, and that it approves the budget for Council and Mayoral action (and meddling by the Control Board and Congress).

The second part allows for the creation of a state-level education agency. This responds to long-reiterated pleas from school activists. There are functions that are clearly best handled by a state-level agency: establishing criteria for diplomas from parochial and other non-public schools, for example. But the wrapper is unacceptable; creating a state-level agency can be done properly after this referendum is defeated.

The third part sets a four-year term for this experiment and writes a blank check to Council to then make whatever changes strike their fancy to-without voter approval in a referendum. The vagueness and open-endedness of this language is an invitation to mischief.

And the referendum itself, if passed, must go to Congress, which is handing a loaded gun to the guy who has just mugged you.

This referendum, if passed, will create a situation in which hiring a sane and competent superintendent will be impossible. No sane and competent person will apply. What body will be in charge in four years? Who will be mayor in three years? What will stop the fundamental rules from changing every year? Just what is the commitment of this city to its children?

Our Next Steps

We parents, taxpayers, and ordinary citizens must save the city and our schools from the Control Board, the Mayor, and the Council.

On June 27, the referendum must be defeated by the greatest possible margin in every one of the eight wards of the city. Organizations such as the D.C. Congress of PTAs and many others oppose the referendum. The Mayor and the Democrat-controlled Council do not even have the Democratic Party apparatus on their side.

June 30 is the date by which the Control Board had promised to return control of DCPS to the elected Board of Education (which now has only two members who were serving when the Emergency Trustees were created). The Control Board is in a near melt-down. The Chief Financial Officer of the city has resigned after a delay of more than three months in settling the city's accounts for last year. The Fire Chief has resigned in protest of budgetary policies that endanger the lives of his firefighters and the safety of every citizen of the city. The Control Board's own Board of Emergency Trustees has self-destructed and now their Superintendent has left DCPS because-she says-of the impossibility of working in the chaos that the Control Board and the Mayor and Council have created.

If the Control Board does not keep its promise to return power to the elected Board of Education, Independence Day weekend would be a good time to begin to take the actions that would force them to keep their word.

In any case, after defeating the referendum, we must continue to recruit candidates, collect signatures for nomination petitions, research issues, talk to candidates, and elect our fellow-citizens who will best represent us on the eleven-member elected Board of Education.

And then we have to help the Board of Education dig us out of this mess, and we have to insist that all our public servants work together with DCPS and the elected board to provide our children the schooling they deserve.

Philip Blair, a resident of Ward 5, can be reached at 526-8821; he is active in the Just Vote No! campaign which is working to defeat the June 27 referendum, and he can put you to work too.

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