Barbara Lett Simmons, former D.C. school board member, dies at 85

Barbara Lett Simmons, a former member of the D.C. school board known for her fiery rhetoric and sometimes rancorous battles during three decades of political activism, died Dec. 22 at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. She was 85.

She had a heart ailment, her son David C. Simmons said.

(Washington Post File) - Barbara Lett Simmons, a former member of the D.C. school board and a persistent voice in D.C. politics, in 1990.

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.

“It’s just a matter of jealousy,” she said at the time. “There are people on the board who very much resent the fact that I am known nationally and they are not.”

Mrs. Simmons helped launch a piano competition for D.C. public school students in 1978. She criticized a school-closing plan in 1982, saying it favored schools in predominantly white sections of the city, and she often clashed with school superintendents and other board members. After 12 years on the school board, she was defeated for reelection in 1985. 

Barbara June Lett was born June 4, 1927, in Battle Creek, Mich., and was a 1949 graduate of Western Michigan University. She taught in Detroit before moving to Washington in 1962.

She was a teacher in Montgomery County from 1962 to 1965, then worked as an educational coordinator for the United Planning Organization, a community services and empowerment organization, and for a D.C. poverty program. She later became a consultant and led training programs at the Department of Education. She was the host of a local radio talk show and a cable television program.

Mrs. Simmons, who had been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention since the 1970s, ran unsuccessfully for the D.C. Council in 1982 and 1984. In 1990, she failed in a bid to become D.C.’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, losing to Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Mrs. Simmons’s husband of 53 years, Samuel J. Simmons, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, died in 2003.

Survivors include two sons, David C. Simmons, the chief administration law judge of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, and Robert A. Simmons, both of Washington; a brother; and a granddaughter.

In later years, Mrs. Simmons served on the Democratic National Committee and was an advocate for D.C. statehood. As an official D.C. elector, she receiving the consent of 2000 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, to abstain from casting her ballot in the electoral college to protest the result of that year’s presidential election. She used the occasion to denounce federal treatment of the citizens of the District as “immoral, unethical, absolutely wrong and unjust.”