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Published: 8/2/2004

Sanders to confront major hurdles if he gets D.C. schools job

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - Running the public schools in the nation's capital isn't for the faint-hearted.

As Washington's political and education leaders get close to choosing the city's next school superintendent - and it could be Toledo Public Schools chief Eugene Sanders - the challenges of the job are clear:

  • Reading and math scores for students in the Washington, D.C. schools are among the lowest in the nation.

  • The school system, which has an annual budget of close to $1 billion, is struggling financially, and nearly 300 teachers recently were laid off to help whittle a $20 million-plus budget deficit.

  • The average school building is 65 years old. Many schools - built years ago as "open schools'' - don't have separate classrooms, making teaching and learning difficult and provoking pleas from parents for money for classroom walls.

    The Washington Post has reported that a five-year, $25 million project to install new computer systems in the schools has failed, and that the D.C. Inspector General recently found that the city's school system wasted $1.2 million to $8.8 million by giving a $45.6 million, three-year contract to a security company that was the "least technically competent," as well as the most expensive bidder.

    Summer school classes got off to a difficult start earlier this month because there weren't enough teachers for the more than 6,000 students who signed up for six weeks of classes.

    Even the number of students in the D.C. public schools is in dispute: The city says it had 65,099 students enrolled in 167 schools and learning centers the last school year, while independent auditors counted 61,653.

    "It is understandable why so many people have turned to charters, vouchers, and other alternative systems to escape the current chaos," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which released a report on the D.C. public schools in January.

    The report helps give a sense of perspective on D.C. public schools. For example, of the more than 60,000 students in the D.C. public school system, nearly 61 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in the 2001-2002 school year. That compares with the 40 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches nationwide, the report noted.

    In addition, more than 84 percent of D.C. public school students are African-American, compared with 17 percent nationwide, the report showed. In addition, the district schools enroll a higher percentage of non-English-speaking students and students with disabilities than the national average.

    The report also found that the average public school in D.C. enrolled about 415 students, significantly fewer than the national average of 708 students per school. D.C. schools also have more teachers per pupil - one teacher for every 14 students - than the national average, and spend more money per pupil - $10,874, compared to nearly $7,000 nationwide.

    Yet D.C. school students are among the lowest-scoring on national and other achievement tests, the report found. In looking for reasons why student achievement hasn't improved over the years, the report's authors wrote: "Our answer is simple. The district hasn't done anything to improve achievement."

    Earlier this year, President Bush and other supporters of school vouchers won narrow congressional approval to create the nation's first federally funded voucher plan in the Washington public schools.

    The $14 million initiative provides grants of up to $7,500 per child toward tuition and other education expenses at religious or private schools. As a sweetener for voucher opponents, Congress also voted to earmark another $13 million for improvements to D.C. public schools.

    In May, however, Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio), who is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for the nation's capital, said he would withhold the money until the D.C. schools have a permanent superintendent.

    Paul L. Vance, the most recent permanent superintendent, quit in November.

    An assistant superintendent, Elfreda Massie, took over as interim superintendent after Mr. Vance quit. Then Ms. Massie quit a few months later to take a private-sector job, and the current interim superintendent, Robert Rice, was named.

    Meanwhile, the mayor and D.C. political and education leaders formed a "collaborative'' to search for a new superintendent.

    Last week, the "collaborative" of city political and education officials who are involved in the superintendent search agreed on four finalists for the job, including Mr. Sanders, and three other professional educators: Pittsburgh School Superintendent John W. Thompson; Clifford B. Janey, the former Rochester, N.Y., superintendent; and Robert E. Schiller, superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education.

    Members of the collaborative have said they hope to announce their choice for the new superintendent in the next week or so. A Washington Post story on Friday indicated that, in recent deliberations, the collaborative ranked Mr. Schiller first and Mr. Sanders second, but hadn't made a final decision.

    The salary for the new superintendent could be raised considerably from the $175,000 that Mr. Vance received annually. Mayor Anthony Williams has suggested that the city might join with the local business community to increase the salary package for the new superintendent to as much as $600,000 as a way of ensuring that the city gets a top-flight candidate.

    Contact Karen MacPherson at: kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 202-662-7075.



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