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In Ward 1, Veteran Harvey Battles a New BloodBy Lee-Ann Alfreds
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 10, 1996; Page J01
He's a trained journalist who has no teaching experience. She's a trained historian who has held several teaching posts. He is a newcomer who believes his ideas will give fresh impetus to a system mired in bureaucracy. She's an old hand who feels her experience will help prepare the D.C. public schools for the next century.
He is Lenwood O. Johnson. She is Wilma R. Harvey. They're vying for the Ward 1 seat on the D.C. Board of Education, one of six school board seats up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election.
Johnson, 36, is an editor and reporter with the D.C. office of CCH Inc., a publishing house. Harvey, 51, is the incumbent and is the director of logistics and operations at the National Council of Negro Women. With the election just a few weeks away, both have stepped up their campaigns -- Harvey has been answering questionnaires and talking to parents at back-to-school nights and PTA meetings; Johnson has been addressing church audiences, attending candidate forums and walking the streets to increase his visibility among voters. Ward 1 includes the Northwest Washington neighborhoods of Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.
Harvey's platform focuses on building on, and consolidating, the programs and reforms initiated during her current term. These include, she said, the establishment of labor restructuring teams and "charter schools," quasi-independent schools run by nonprofit groups, universities and other organizations with funds from the public schools.
She also is promising to work to increase accountability and improve management systems at all levels; ensure that schools reflect the diverse racial populations that make up her constituency; ensure that the schools meet the needs of the various groups and that all the neighborhoods of Ward 1 are fully informed of the choices being made for their schools; and move forward with new ideas and approaches, "seeking excellence, not just acceptable mediocrity."
Johnson takes a back-to-basics approach with his platform. He is pledging to work to ensure that every person in the city receives a decent public education; restore the substitute teaching program; restore adult education programs; increase parental involvement; fix and renovate the school buildings and increase teachers' salaries.
Although their platforms have different emphases, Johnson and Harvey do agree on certain basic issues. In response to a Washington Post questionnaire, both said they believed Superintendent Franklin L. Smith should be replaced and that they did not support publicly funded tuition vouchers that would pay for children to attend private schools.
In addition, Harvey and Johnson both said they supported closing some D.C. schools as a way to save money; considering the idea of charter schools; and allowing individual schools to contract for management services from private businesses and other groups.
The one thing they do not agree on, however, is whether the new Board of Education member for Ward 1 needs to be an experienced old hand or a newcomer with fresh ideas.
Harvey, who has served as school board president in the past, believes her 10 years on the panel, as well as her previous teaching experience, is essential if the city is to improve its crisis-ridden schools. Johnson, a chairman of the Columbia Heights Advisory Neighborhood Commission who has worked on several political campaigns, thinks it's time for new blood.
Harvey "has done a pathetic, sorry job, and everything that's wrong with the school system today, she's had a hand in," Johnson said. "I don't have as much experience, and I certainly have none on the Board of Education, but I have a lot of common-sense ideas and solutions. . . . I'm running for the board because I'm trying to save the schools. I want to fix the system that's broken."
Saying Harvey has been "asleep at the wheel," Johnson placed several recent problems at Harvey's and the school board's door. As an example, he cited the debacle around the opening of schools last month, when several buildings couldn't open because of fire code violations.
"Every day, I pick up the paper or turn on the TV, and it's another school board or another school horror story," Johnson said. "Harvey's a part of that board. Even if she doesn't agree, she never made it known that she disagrees."
Johnson, who is single and has no children, says he is qualified for the board, even if he does not have experience in the field of education.
"The school system is but an agency of government, just like the Department of Human Services. You don't need to be a schoolteacher or have experience being a principal. A school board position is an administrative and a political job," said Johnson, who says he loves politics. "That's why I'm looking at it."
Harvey, who's single and is the mother of one, points to her background in education as a resource on which to draw. Her experience on the board, however, might turn out to be a drawback rather than an advantage in this election. She's aware that some people think she's had her chance and blown it, but she does not subscribe to that view.
"I'll be the first one to say there's always room for a new view," she said. "But a new view does not always have to come from a neophyte."
Conceding that the current school board has to shoulder some of the responsibility for the problems of the school system, Harvey says voters should remember that the problems with schools are part of the larger crisis facing the District and that she had to abide by the decisions of the entire 11-member school board, whether she agreed with those decisions or not.
"I have one vote," she said, "and my vote reflects that we need to do something about fire code violations, the dropout rate and the flight to the suburbs."
Harvey pointed to accomplishments -- she said she chaired a commission on adult education that recommended that "all kinds of adult schools" be set up, and she successfully fought to keep Cleveland Elementary School open when it was one of several schools threatened with forced closure earlier this year.
"I believe my record will speak for itself," said Harvey, who expressed confidence that she'll be reelected. "I believe that if anybody's name is on the ballot, that the best choice is Wilma Harvey."
If Johnson is elected, he believes his "common sense" solutions -- such as laying off employees in the central administration and closing some schools to pay for school repairs -- will go a long way toward helping to solve the school system's problems.
Johnson also believes the financial control board could be persuaded to foot the bill for new buildings and renovations, especially if it was directly in charge of the money.
"It doesn't matter to me that I'm not the one giving the check to the contractor," he said. "What matters to me is that renovations are done."
He also is advocating that the curriculum requirements be made stricter and that children be required to take chemistry, Latin, algebra, biology, foreign languages and English.
The children in the District are "my kids, they're our kids. I'm looking out for them, and I just want to fix the things that are broken," he said. "I just want to ensure these kids get a good, decent public school education."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company