Mrs. Simmons had been an elementary school teacher in Detroit and Montgomery County before entering the often fractious world of D.C. politics. As a consultant, she helped lead the search that led to the appointment of Barbara A. Sizemore as D.C. superintendent of schools in 1973, the same year Mrs. Simmons was elected to the school board.
At a time when home rule was new to the District, the school board was a hotbed of political ambition and rivalry, “where old wounds fester for years and new ones seem to crop up daily,” as a 1980 Washington Post article put it.
Mrs. Simmons was part of a vanguard of public officials who sought to leave their mark on the city. Her aims were to broaden opportunites for inner-city children, expand vocational training and make the schools more accountable to residents.
“For years people wanted to suggest that politics was a nasty word,” she said in 1977. “They said education should not be politicized. Well, in my opinion, the schools are the most significant institution in society, and necessarily education must be politicized.”
The D.C. school system was in free fall at the time, with multimillion-dollar budget deficits, declining enrollment, rising dropout numbers and general deterioration.
Sizemore was no more able than many other superintendents, before and since, to solve the problems. Within two years, a majority of the school board wanted to fire her for poor management and incompetence. Mrs. Simmons was Sizemore’s staunchest defender.
From April to October 1975, she was at the center of a drama of operatic proportions in which the school board held dozens of meetings to determine Sizemore’s future. Protesters, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, disrupted meetings, battled with security officers and sometimes went to jail. Board members were taunted with racial epithets from the crowd, and Sizemore’s fate remained in limbo for months.
Ultimately, Sizemore was fired and replaced as superintendent by Vincent E. Reed.
In the midst of the prolonged debate, Mrs. Simmons wrote a letter to The Washington Post, in which she complained about a “travesty of justice” and questioned whether the newspaper’s editorial board opposed Sizemore because she was black and female.
“By now it should be obvious to all readers of The Washington Post that it will try to destroy any Black person who dares to oppose or speak out against racism in the District of Columbia,” she wrote in the letter published by The Post.
The newspaper responded with an editorial charging Mrs. Simmons and other firebrands with encouraging racial divisions and a double standard.
In 1977, she was one of three members of the board temporarily barred from taking out-of-town trips at taxpayers’ expense.