D.C. State Board of Education seat up for grabs in special election

Longtime civic activist Philip Pannell and high school teacher Tierra Jolly are vying to be Ward 8’s next representative to the D.C. State Board of Education, which is responsible for establishing citywide academic standards.

The seat has been vacant since March, when representative Trayon White stepped down after taking a city government job that prohibited his continued service as an elected official. A special election is set for Tuesday.

Low turnout is expected, in part because the board’s role in shaping citywide education policy is limited and unclear to many voters. Both candidates acknowledge that the board has few official responsibilities but say that the representative occupies an important platform for advocating on behalf of Ward 8.

“The State Board of Education is basically a policy position, and the stuff that they’re involved with would normally make the average person yawn,” Pannell said. But he said being an elected official involved in education would give him a way to make a difference for the community. “I feel I can actually make some things happen.”

Jolly agrees: “I know that the person who represents Ward 8 will still have agenda-setting power, the pulpit from which to frame the conversation about what is happening our schools.”

The nine-member nonpartisan board was created under the same 2007 law that established mayoral control of the city’s school system. The state board replaced a more powerful board that oversaw the school system’s facilities, operations and budget.

Pannell, 63, served as an assistant to the former board’s chairwoman, Peggy Cooper Cafritz. During his 30 years in Ward 8, he also has served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner and officer of the Ward 8 Democrats.

He said that if elected, he would work to be a “catalyst for community involvement in education,” encouraging more Ward 8 parents and residents to advocate for public schools and help build the kinds of academic and extracurricular opportunities they want.

“We have situations here where we have schools that don’t have PTAs, or the PTAs are in need of some serious capacity-building,” Pannell said.

Pannell, who has no children, helped found a parent group at Ballou High School nearly a decade ago in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a Ballou student. Pannell then served as the group’s treasurer.

He now serves as vice chairman of the board of Community College Preparatory Academy, an adult-education charter school.

Jolly, who grew up in Ward 8, acknowledged Pannell’s extensive record in the community but said he doesn’t have the depth of education experience that she has built teaching history in public and private schools.

Jolly, 31, started her career with Teach for America in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. She moved back to the District and worked for a year at Ward 8’s Kramer Middle School before going to her alma mater, Bishop McNamara High, a Catholic school in Prince George’s County.

“I learned that middle school takes a special kind of person, and I am not that kind of person,” said Jolly, who is working on a doctoral dissertation in history in addition to her teaching job.

Jolly said she is running because the board needs the voice of a teacher who has experience working with children in Ward 8 and who saw firsthand how there weren’t enough specialists to meet students’ significant mental and behavioral health needs. She said she would work to highlight inequities in the city’s schools.

“The person who is representing us needs to talk about how schools in Ward 8 are not getting the same resources that schools west of the river are getting,” she said.

Pannell’s campaign has received about $8,600 in contributions, with roughly $3,000 coming from the candidate himself, according to D.C. Office of Campaign Finance records. Eighty-nine percent of Pannell’s contributors live in the District, including Cora Masters, former wife of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who donated $100.

Jolly’s campaign has raised about $9,200, according to the records. Most of Jolly’s financial support has come from outside the city: 17 percent of her 133 donors are from the District. One notable donor is Emma Bloomberg, daughter of former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who gave $200. Bloomberg is chairwoman of Stand for Children and a board member of another national education reform group, Leadership for Education Equity (LEE), which grooms former Teach for America teachers to run for office. LEE gave Jolly $400 directly. She also received $200 from Katherine Bradley, president of CityBridge Foundation, which supports education reform in the District.

The two candidates on the ballot are facing another challenger, Derrell Simpson, who is waging a write-in campaign. Simpson, 25, works with children at the District’s Nalle Elementary as an employee of the National Center for Children and Families. Simpson grew up in the District and graduated from Booker T. Washington Public Charter School. He said he wants to work on engaging parents in schools and that his key priority is reestablishing parent resource centers at schools the system closed several years ago.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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