Caliber of Board Hopefuls Concerns D.C. Educators
By Valerie Strauss
The shortage of experienced candidates seeking election next month to the D.C. Board of Education has sparked concern among District educators and school improvement advocates that the panel may not be capable of resuming oversight of the troubled school system once its powers are restored in less than two years.
There are 39 candidates running for five seats on the 11-member panel. Education activists say the candidates are sincerely motivated, but that most lack experience in public life and have no track record in education reform. Moreover, longtime activists say, many of the office-seekers haven't shown in their campaigns that they even know what the school board does.
"They have to have some kind of experience and an understanding of what makes an educational system work in society," said school board President Wilma R. Harvey (D-Ward 1). "A lot of the [campaign] literature reads like they are running for superintendent of schools, not the school board. They might say, 'I intend to reduce the dropout rate.' Well, the school board can't do that. The superintendent works on that."
Many candidates' public pronouncements, Harvey said, also have reflected little understanding of the job. "When they say they will get more textbooks in the classroom or lower the dropout rate, they confuse people," she said. "When they become school board members and can't carry it out, people become disillusioned."
Harvey and other education advocates in the District have called the Nov. 3 election the most important for the school board since 1974, when, for the first time, D.C. residents were permitted under congressionally approved home rule to choose their own school board representatives.
For years afterward, however, school board members have bickered among themselves, occasionally resorting to fisticuffs. They also clashed frequently with a succession of superintendents opening themselves up to complaints of trying to micromanage the 146-school system. Meanwhile, student academic performance plummeted, and school administrations became so dysfunctional that they could not come up with reliable figures for student enrollment or school system employees.
In November 1996, the D.C. financial control board stripped the elected school board of most of its power and put oversight of the schools in the hands of appointed trustees. Salaries for school board members were slashed from $30,000 to $15,000, and the panel retained only the authority to grant charters to organizations wanting to start their own schools.
The school board, which by law is supposed to have its full oversight role restored in June 2000, sued the control board. When an appeals court ruled in January that the control board did not have the authority to delegate its school oversight responsibilities, the appointed trustees were made an advisory panel effectively establishing two advisory groups, the trustees and the school board.
Harvey and new control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin are now negotiating to gradually return power to the elected board before the changeover, according to sources close to the talks. Yet, given the relative inexperience of the current crop of candidates, many are wondering whether the school board will be up to the task.
Attorney John Howard, for example, is running for the Ward 4 school board seat although he has never attended a school board meeting or run for office before. He said he was inspired by a newspaper editorial saying "highly qualified" people should run.
"I'm highly qualified," Howard, 54, said. "I thought I should run."
Ward 2 candidate Raymond Avrutis has not had a full-time job for nearly 20 years. He wrote a book with advice on how to "maximize" unemployment benefits, and regularly bursts into song in the middle of conversations and during a recent political debate.
George Pope is chairman of the D.C. Coalition to Save Our Schools and has run for office before, including the unpaid job akin to a lobbyist as the District's "shadow" U.S. senator. But Pope, who is seeking an at-large seat, has tangled with other school officials and was tried and acquitted in 1996 of charges that he threatened at-large school board member Jay Silberman.
Some candidates, to be sure, have had successful careers or some involvement with the city's schools, if only as parents. Westy Byrd, a stockbroker and longtime Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, is running for the Ward 2 seat, as is George E. Holmes, a special education teacher. Gail Dixon, seeking an at-large seat, is an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia. Tom Kelly is a retired D.C. school principal seeking election in Ward 7.
But D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who heads that panel's education committee, said he has never heard of most of the office-seekers and knows that other education activists have expressed concerns about the candidates' qualifications.
"A lot of folks who want to get involved in elective politics feel they should run for the school board as a way to get their name out there," he said. "And that is unfortunate, because the school board is a very important policymaking body and the people who run for that office should have some special interest or experience in the area of education or school reform."
The D.C. Parents-Teachers Association is so worried that nobody knows anything about the school board candidates that its executive committee has urged local PTA councils to sponsor candidates forums before the election.
"With the paucity of well-known, well-informed, highly qualified candidates, it behooves us to have as many exposure possibilities before the election," said Larry Gray, the group's legislative director.
Gray and other education advocates say the race did not lure more candidates with education and management experience because the school board has become such an ineffectual body. Of the five incumbents up for reelection this year, only one, Sandra Butler-Truesdale in Ward 4, decided to run again.
Some board members and other school activists blame the control board for undercutting interest in the election. They say its former chairman, Andrew F. Brimmer, rebuffed efforts to have more powers gradually returned to the current school panel.
"My fear is that the control board, by not agreeing to a transitional plan well enough in advance of the declaration of candidacies and filing of petitions for school board candidates, [has] precluded a good, solid school board," said Silberman, who is giving up his seat after eight years. "When the school board does have its responsibilities and authorities back in place, it will unfortunately, but inevitably, be a less-than-qualified body. It's very scary."
Others are worried because some candidates have adopted extremely strident platforms. A number of them, for example, already have decided that new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has had the job for only five months, should be replaced. The campaign rhetoric has been so confrontational in some cases that it has raised concerns that the fractious politics that hindered the board in the past will continue at the expense of a more conciliatory approach.
Near the conclusion of an at-large candidates forum last week, the moderator, City Paper columnist Ken Cummings, said to the crowd, "I don't come away with a great deal of confidence that we are not going to have a school board that wants to micromanage . . . that is a continuation of what we had before, with infighting" and other problems.
Still, city officials say they will work with the board no matter which candidates are elected.
"It is incumbent on all of us . . . that we work through a very thoughtful comprehensive transition between now and June 2000," said Peter Gallagher, a member of the trustees panel, who believes the school board will be ready to take over then. "We are going to have to have a thoughtful transition where they become more and more involved in the management of the system, oversight activities and policy. There has to be training, there has to be collaboration and team work, there has to be substantive involvement."
Control board Vice Chairman Constance B. Newman, who is the control board member responsible for oversight of the city's public schools, said that she, Rivlin, Gallagher and others are all in agreement: "No matter how it comes out," she said, "we're going to be working with the winners."
Staff writers Cindy Loose, Jay Mathews and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.
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