D.C. Board of Education President Wilma Harvey misses her car and driver. Lacking a car of her own, Harveywho joined the board in 1986once relied on the school board’s personal transit system to shuffle her to meetings at far-off schools that lay beyond the reach of Metro. “It’s impossible to get [to many schools] by public transportation,” says Harvey. “You may be able to get there by cab, but you can’t get out.” When the control board in November 1996 seized control of the D.C. public schools and reduced the school board to an advisory body, however, it eliminated funding for this precious school board perk.
Now Harvey wants it restored. In a letter outlining the school board’s position on the eventual return of its oversight powers, Harvey pressed control board education czar Constance Newman on the “transportation” issue.
“I find nothing wrong with transportation being provided to board members,” says Harvey. “I find nothing wrong with that.”
Her fellow board members do. “All 10 of us jumped up and down on her over this,” says a school board member, who requested anonymity. “We demanded that the car and driver not be a part of our discussions with the [control] board.”
The other board members deserve credit for reading their history books. In justifying the 1996 putsch that stripped the school board of power, control board sources told reporters about the infamous meeting with board members on their standing in the school system. When control board members mentioned the possibility of stripping the school board of its powers, the elected reps reportedly whined most not about highfalutin democratic principles, but about the loss of all their little privilegesthe parking spaces, the car and driver, and so on. The meeting sealed the board’s demise and the creation of the D.C. Emergency Transitional Board of Trustees, which usurped oversight responsibilities for the school system.
Any more talk about perks, school board members fear, will derail the control board’s long-standing goal of transferring powers back to them by June 30, 2000. The perk debate, moreover, highlights the PR dimension of the school board’s bid to reclaim its powers: To establish its bona fides as a legitimate oversight panel, the board must do everything to distance itself from its previous incarnation as an undisciplined band of hacks completely unable to exercise oversight on the school system.
While the boards of yore quibbled about the performance of superintendents, privatization schemes, and the merits of Afrocentric curricula, they overlooked the basics, like student test scores, disintegration of school facilities, and the ballooning of central administration. The results were disastrous: By 1996, 53 percent of the system’s students were dropping out by the 11th grade, and fire-code violations were keeping students out of classrooms.
The control board’s solution unilaterally reduced the elected school board to advisory status and vested power in the appointed emergency trustees. Over a year later, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the control board lacked the authority to tinker willy-nilly with the city’s instrumentalities. So the control board responded by making the emergency trustees the real advisory board, but handing three seats to members of the elected boardand relegating the elected school board to a sort of rump status. Got that? There will be a quiz later.
Somewhere along the line, though, the two education panels switched their assigned roles. The appointed board of trustees, conceived as a professional troubleshooting group above the muck of politics, might now better be called the board of lackees: It has turned into an unflinching rubber stamp for the policies of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. And the elected board, energized by the January arrivals of activist first-termers William Lockridge (Ward 8), Gail Dixon (At-Large), Tom Kelly (Ward 7), and Westy Byrd (Ward 2), is showing an appetite for the meticulous oversight that will ward off fire-code disasters and other surprises.
Byrd, for instance, has gone from school to school in Ward 2 sniffing out students who have been wronged by the school system and reporting their difficulties to Ackerman. And she has also turned up allegations that teachers at Walker-Jones Elementary School provided answers to their students on the Stanford 9 test, which the school system uses to evaluate teacher and school performance.
Elected board membersparticularly the nine of 11 members inaugurated since the 1996 coupsay that their recent oversight performance proves they have more to offer than the appointed board of trustees. “Some of us,” says Kelly, “are anxious to represent the people who elected us to office….I see a great deal of motivation among all of us. I also see that members who were elected two years earlier are rolling up their sleeves and doing what they were unable to do before.” The only holdovers from the old, old days are Harvey and Ward 5’s Angie Corley.
Kelly made just this argument when he and several other school board members challenged the dictatorial schools establishment at an early March meeting on the transfer of power. On the table was a control board-commissioned “Transition Plan,” which would grant the elected board power over facilities and school discipline by year’s end but more gradually phase in other responsibilities, such as tracking instruction and personnel. Kelly and his colleagues thought the planwhich was presented by Newmanmoved too slowly and provided little insight on running a school system in crisis. And they let Newman know about it.
“Of course you’re going to have folks angry,” says Dixon, citing “degradation” under control board rule.
The unpleasant exchange with elected board members may have convinced Newman that the time line was in fact not too slow but too aggressive. “She came away thinking that this was a board that needed a lot of grooming,” says a council source. Newman didn’t return a call for comment.
Newman’s not the only one questioning the elected board’s fitness for the responsibilities its members seek. At a mid-March meeting of the Ward 3 Democrats, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp wondered aloud about the board’s handling of transition politics. “Things weren’t going the way they should have been going,” Cropp told LL in a phone interview.
Cropp deemed the situation desperate enough to warrant a marathon lunch with the entire board at B. Smith’s restaurant. By all accounts, the repast was a cordial and constructive affair. “I just wanted to meet with the school board to see how I could facilitate and help the school system run at the highest level possible,” says Cropp, a former school board member and a master of the sound bite, who can make knocking heads sound as soothing as one of Mike Brady’s family lectures.
A longtime schools observer had a more edgy take: “This was Linda saying, ‘I helped build the school board up, and I don’t want to see you guys tear it down.’” If that was the case, perhaps Cropp should have arranged lunch with…herself, since the boards she sat on during the ’80s helped lay the groundwork for its ’90s nose dive.
If the elected school board members are seeking advice on how to expedite the transfer of authority, they should skip Cropp and instead listen to Ackerman. At a March 12-13 school board retreat, Ackerman suggested that things would go a lot more smoothly if the board invited three emergency trustees to participate in its deliberationsa neat irony, since just a couple years ago, the control board acted as if appointing three elected board members to the emergency board was the height of generosity. Ackerman’s logic held that by bringing the trustees to their meetings, the school board could enhance communication with the schools administration, learn more about how the bureaucracy is managed, and, not so incidentally, prolong Ackerman’s unchecked sway over the school system.
“I don’t see the proposal as any kind of necessity,” says Dixon. “As the school board comes back, the board of trustees is supposed to go away.”
Ackerman’s none too excited about that bright, bold future. Remember, at issue here is oversight over a $600 million budget, a trove that Ackerman delights in controlling with almost no interference from the board of trustees. The debate over the proposed weighted student formulawhich would adjust budgetary allocations to D.C. schoolsprovides an ideal illustration: Although the formula was to determine how most of that money gets funneled to the students, Ackerman called it an “internal management initiative” that she wanted to railroad through without ever soliciting public input. While the elected board held public hearings on the matter, the emergency board prepared for summary approval.
“There’s a vast uneasiness on the part of Ackerman to ever be under the Board of Education,” says a council source.
Ackerman will have plenty of opportunities to question the school board’s fitness for schools oversight in the 15 months remaining before the power transfer deadline. In that period, the school board must complete approximately 15 policy initiativesincluding an ethics code, a “public engagement and participation plan,” and a disciplinary policyto satisfy the control board’s transition plan.
And the prospects for the elected board to fall on its face are all the higher because it will be doing that work, some members say, without enough tools: While Harvey is talking about transportation, other board members are haggling with Newman and the control board over staffing levels, a rather more importantand less politically toxicprerogative than chauffeurs. The recent transfer of authority over school facilities has generated more paperwork than the current school board staff of three can handle. Newman offered three additional staffers for an interim 90-day period, and a minor power struggle ensued. School board members pushed for a say in choosing the staffers, prompting a take-it-or-leave-it response from Newman.
With 15 months to go, board members apparently still haven’t learned how to develop appropriate appreciation for enlightened despotism.
FANNING THE FIRE
When Logan Circle resident John Fanning caught the politics bug, he did what any other upstart politico would have done. Earlier this year, Fanning began pounding the pavementor at least chatting up local megaphone ownersin an effort to suss out his prospects for ousting Jack Evans from his Ward 2 councilmember’s seat.
“Some of my neighbors,” says Fanning, “had conversations with Beth Solomon and Leroy Thorpe and several others regarding a poll in the ward….to see where we’re at as far as running against Jack.” Although Fanning says he never launched an exploratory committee, he says he has conferred with the “neighbors” researching Evans’ viability.
Fanning’s activities would be unremarkable if not for one caveat: He works in Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ troubled Office of the Public Advocate. His boss has just delivered a controversial budget to the D.C. Council proposing everything from the relocation of the University of the District of Columbia to a downsizing of D.C. General Hospital. Evans is chair of the council’s powerful finance and revenue committee.
If Williams had forgotten any of that, he got a stiff reminder three weeks back, when Evans met with him on tax policy. Before the meeting ended, Evans informed the mayor that one of his appointees was campaigning against him.
“Tony agreed that it sounded like a problem,” says John Ralls, Evans’ chief of staff.
Apparently not enough of a problem to warrant a reprimand. According to Williams spokesperson Peggy Armstrong, Fanning met with his supervisor, Office of Public Advocate Director Carlene Cheatham, on the allegations. The two discussed Fanning’s activities and the relevance to the Hatch Act, which prohibits partisan activities by government employees. That’s as tough as it got. “She urged me not to [run for office] because she said she didn’t want to lose me as an employee,” says Fanning.
Ralls suggests a more severe punishmentsay, perhaps, dismissal. Fanning, he says, did more than just chat up his neighbors about local politics. “We’ve had calls from people who have been asked by Fanning to contribute to a fund for a poll,” says Ralls. “That’s his prerogative, but if he’s going to do that, then he shouldn’t be working for the mayor.” Fanning denies ever having solicited funds.
In discussing the affair, Fanning sounds much more like a political candidate than the professional government employee he’s paid to be. “My take on it is that I’m a threat to himthat’s what I think he feels, because of my job and my background and experience,” says Fanning. “Maybe he thought I would use that to my advantage.”CP
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