DC Board Oversteps Authority on Schools

Published April 1, 1998

When Congress appointed a financial control board to assume responsibility for the District of Columbia’s municipal government in 1995, the board was granted “extraordinary” powers to address the city’s near financial collapse. But a federal appeals court has ruled that those powers did not permit the board to delegate authority for the city’s schools to an appointed board of trustees.

In November 1996, a year after taking over the nation’s capital, the financial control board declared the District of Columbia’s school system to be in a state of emergency, fired then- Superintendent Franklin L. Smith, placed former Army General Julius W. Becton Jr, in charge, and appointed a new board of trustees to take over most of the elected school board’s authority. When a majority of the elected school board members filed suit, a city judge ruled in favor of the control board last February. The school board members appealed.

On January 6, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District ruled that Congress intended the control board, not its appointed trustees, to exercise “the powers of governance over the district.” However, the court did not void decisions the trustees had taken, and said that the trustees could offer “advice” to the control board.

“We see no benefit in plunging the district’s school system into further chaos by invalidating the actions taken by the board of trustees over the past year,” wrote Judge Laurence H. Silberman for the panel.

Although the ruling vindicates the elected board, it does not restore their authority, which the court placed firmly in the hands of the control board. The control board will have to take a more active role in running the school system, with Becton reporting directly to it rather than to the trustees or the elected school board.

According to Education Week, former superintendent Smith has no interest in trying to get his old job back.