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Response to Bruce MacLaury
February 10, 1998




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To the editor of DCWatch:

On February 4 the Washington Post published a letter from Bruce MacLaury, Chair of the Emergency Board of Trustees of the DC Public Schools, on its Op Ed page in which he argued that there was no alternative to continuing with the Trustees as the governing body of the schools. Of course, there are superior alternatives and the Control Board has been ordered by the appeals court to explore options that increase citizen representation in school governance.

As the president of the elected School Board of Education, I am obligated to inform DC citizens about issues of the DC public schools. I submitted a response on the same day to both the Post and the Washington Times. Unfortunately, neither paper has printed the responses, nor have they published other dissenting opinions, thus, leaving their readers with the no understanding of the complex and critical governance decisions that need to be made in the next 15 days.

I am asking DC Watch to publish my response in order to open public discussion of issues that have up to now only been discussed behind closed doors.

Wilma Harvey, President of the Board of Education

For 15 months the District of Columbia public school system has been under the control of an appointed Board of Trustees. As a result of the court order invalidating the delegation of authority, the Control Board and the Trustees are looking for a new way to continue control. As in 1996, they are talking mainly to themselves and not engaging in the open processes we need to have if we are going to find solutions that make sense for the city and enable us to move forward together.

Meeting behind closed doors and not required to have more than pro-forma consultations with parents, community leaders or the elected Board of Education, the Trustees were expected to make the “hard decisions” necessary to improve the system. The Control Board, Congress and a variety of self-anointed decision-makers contended that the elected Board had failed to get results. The new team received extraordinary powers as well as new money and many commitments of help, including from the White House and the Department of Education.

People have been expected to be patient, to trust the system, to be confident that their children are in good hands and a solid foundation is being built for the high quality, high performance, well-managed and socially responsible education system we all desire. Yet, the school system continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, with excuse following excuse.

Patience and trust are disappearing fast. It is no longer just a lack of confidence in the new team, or merely a political objection to the high-handed nature of the takeover and the affront to basic principles of democracy and citizenship. It is beyond disagreement about details and niceties of due process. Simply put, people are scared, confused and increasingly angry about what is happening.

  • Next year’s budget is not ready.
  • The facilities plans have been amended so many times that few people other than General Williams and his immediate staff know what to expect.
  • Audits of contracting and procurement show very serious shortcomings, and probably would show more except that the administration refused to cooperate with the auditors.
  • Physical security may actually be worse than before, despite the expensive and controversial contracting of security guards.
  • The new standards, assessments and promotion policies are not aligned with realities in the classroom and are only beginning to be explained to parents.
  • Teachers and principals are confused, not to speak of the parents and community organizations trying to follow the process.
  • Special education plans have been rejected eight times by the Department of Education. Now that the inexperienced manager brought in by the new team has been dismissed, a manager associated with some of the failed programs has been rehired.
  • As many as 20,000 children may be held back and required to attend summer school. Preparations have barely begun, schools are not ready and parents are worried.

The list of problems and concerns can be extended, but it is not my purpose merely to document problems. We must move forward. We need to find ways to involve everybody in creating solutions. And, we must ensure that those with the power to make decisions and carry out policies are held accountable for doing so.

I do not think we can move forward with the current structure of an appointed Board of Trustees with no mandate to be accountable to the community or to take the views of community leaders into account in making education policy.

It is time for some serious discussion of what we all are trying to accomplish and how we are going to get it done. A new framework for cooperation and collaboration is needed, with more respectful dialogue among all concerned and involving parents and community leaders more fully in education decision-making, schools management and program oversight.

The closed process has made a difficult situation worse by obstructing the efforts of parents and community members to play constructive roles in improving the schools. Many of the problems now emerging in public
could have been addressed much earlier and with much less cost and disruption had there been more transparency, open participation and respectful dialogue on the part of school authorities. Here is what I propose, and what I am attempting to accomplish as President of the elected Board of Education.

First, the Board of Education is being restructured and reinvigorated, with each of its committees expected to set clear objectives and a timeline for recommendations, with specific provisions for involving parent and community groups in the formulation of policies and oversight.

Second, the Board will focus on how decisions are made, not just on being decisive. A core objective is improving the flow of information to and from the public, increasing public participation in decision-making and oversight.

Third, the Board will use public forums and working groups to help set the agenda, not just react to events. The Control Board, Congress and others may choose to ignore our input, as they have in the last year and a half, but it remains our responsibility to articulate the issues concerning the citizens of this city.

Fourth, we all need to lower the rhetoric and look for ways to work together. We cannot afford to continue the polarized debate, adversary proceedings, closed processes and one-way communications that have characterized policy making and governance of schools since the takeover.

The courts have given us another opportunity to work together, as a community. It will not be easy and it may be messy, with many areas of controversy and difficult decisions. However, “putting children first” means that we as adults have got to start treating each other with respect, recognizing our differences but accepting our responsibility to make decisions and move forward.

These are the messages I have been trying to convey to my colleagues on the Board of Education, to the Control Board and Board of Trustees and to the opinion leaders and political leaders of this city. It is time for all of us to move forward, together, to create an open, respectful and representative mechanism for oversight and decision-making on public education in the capital of the world’s leading democracy.

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