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School Board Candidates Say They're Eager to Reform System

By Lee-Ann Alfreds
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 17, 1996; Page J01

A heated four-way D.C. Board of Education race is underway in Ward 6, where incumbent Bernard Gray is facing three challengers who say they can do a better job.

Wayne Curtin said he's running because he feels a commitment to Washington and wants to start a family and have his children attend strong schools. Deborah Scott said she was inspired to run after encountering an 11-year-old girl in a neighborhood store who couldn't count her money. And Benjamin Bonham said he's in the race simply because he is "sick and tired of being sick and tired."

In 1992, Gray became the board member from Ward 6, the city's smallest ward and one of its most racially and economically diverse. It stretches from the affluent white and middle-class black neighborhoods of Capitol Hill to some poor and working-class communities east of the Anacostia River.

With the balloting just a few weeks away, the challengers -- especially Bonham, who was narrowly defeated by Gray in the 1992 race -- are confident of their chances.

Bonham, 43, is the only candidate with children who attend D.C. public schools. He said his training as an accountant and his experience as the chief of payroll in the Department of Public Works, a teacher in the D.C. school system and a member of several community and educational committees would bring much-needed skills to the board.

"I've come through the system, taught in the system and have kids in the system," he said. "So I have a vested interest."

Bonham said that if elected, he will work to eliminate factionalism on the board, ensure that the board exerts final authority over school contracts, adopt sound fiscal and administrative policy and ensure that schools and classrooms are safe. He also said he would emphasize cooperation with parents, the mayor and the D.C. Council.

Bonham said he has been endorsed by D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6) and John Capozzi (D), one of the District's "shadow senators."

Gray, 55, is hoping his record on the board will get him reelected. Although he acknowledges that the board has not accomplished much recently, Gray said he has "laid the groundwork to start making the changes that are necessary."

"If I had to evaluate the board's performance, it would get only from a D-minus to an F," said Gray, who cited as major failures the board's lack of supervision of Superintendent Franklin L. Smith and its lack of planning. "I'm absolutely amazed that a lot of board members didn't know their responsibilities when I got onto the board."

Gray, who has found himself among a minority on the board on some big issues, defended his own performance. "The board is made up of 11 members," he said. "All need to be doing a job. I have no false hopes that I'm going to turn the board around in four years. You would not see any improvement. I can only say look at my record, look at what I've established."

Gray said he has pushed for school-based budgeting and believes he will be able to garner enough support from a new board to have the idea approved.

Gray said he has been endorsed by the Washington Teachers Union.

Although Gray has voiced unhappiness about the superintendent's performance, he indicated in response to a Washington Post survey that he believed Smith should continue in the job until his contract expires in June. All three of Gray's challengers said the superintendent should be fired. Gray said terminating Smith's contract early would be costly.

Gray also said in the survey that he opposed the idea of charter schools -- quasi-independent schools run by nonprofit groups, universities and others using public money -- because he said the system needs standardization. All three of his opponents support the charter schools idea.

Bonham and Gray both said they do not support allowing individual schools to contract for management services from private businesses.

Curtin, 41, has focused his campaign on what he calls the "Three New R's" -- responsibility, resources and reform. He says he will work to restore fiscal accountability to the board, develop community and corporate support for schools, reform the system's management structure and transfer decision-making power to schools and parents.

As vice president of government relations for the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, Curtin said, he has developed skills that would make him an asset on the school board. In his job, he lobbies on Capitol Hill and also helps develop public policy at the federal, state and local levels. He also has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations and has grass-roots political experience, including as secretary of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B.

"I believe we have to have major and wholesale changes in leadership. We need to bring in new people," said Curtin, who added that a high-quality school system would go a long way toward keeping residents in the District. "I didn't want to give up on the city. I didn't want to say it's in such bad shape. . . . I recommitted myself to the city this August when I bought a house."

Scott, 35, a special assistant to D.C. Council member Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1), decided to run for the school board after she encountered an 11-year-old girl in a neighborhood store who was unable to count her money.

Scott has a long list of goals: to make leadership more responsive; to improve special education; to raise academic standards and prepare students for high-skill, high-wage jobs; to ensure that schools are safe; to sell closed school buildings; to repair run-down schools; to make sure private contractors are held accountable; and to equip each student with a computer.

Scott said her ability to analyze city budget documents and contracts, her experience working with community groups, businesses and city agencies and her familiarity with the federal and D.C. legislative processes would serve her well on the school board.

The D.C. financial control board has been studying ways to address fiscal and management problems in the school system. Among the options the panel is considering are removing the superintendent and diminishing the school board's power. But Scott said the school board should have more, not less, control.

"I don't think we should abolish the school board," she said. "It has a very important function. The school board is not the problem. It's the members that serve on the board."

A Ward 6 candidate forum is scheduled for tonight at Providence Baptist Church, 526 15th St. SE. Forums also will be held Oct. 23 at Roosevelt Senior High, 13th and Upshur streets NW, and Oct. 28 at Eastern Market, North Carolina Avenue and Seventh Street SE. All forums begin at 7 p.m.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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