Just as the meeting of the D.C. school board began last week two board members began arguing. John Warren said R. Calvin Lockridge had introduced him as "Mr. Warner." "It's Warren," he told Lockridge coldly.
The bickering continued throughout the meeting as it has through many school board meetings in the last year. Some board members made faces, smirking disdainfully when other board members spoke. Comments by board members were often interrupted by mocking one-line quips from one or another of their colleagues.
Arthur Whitaker watched. Then he spoke: "Children are like the adults they see," said Whitaker, a community activist who has several nieces and nephews in the city's public schools. "After watching the school board nit-pick against each other and the public, it's no wonder the kids aren't learning anything in school . . . I want you to know that there is legislation now available to the public to get rid of bitchy, incompetent public officials and I'm going to look into getting some of you off the board."
The audience of about 50 persons at the meeting at Ballou High School in the Anacostia area applauded Whitaker and the focus of the meeting shifted from problems in the schools to the possibility of using a law that went into effect on Friday to recall members of the board.
John Ray, an at-large city council-man, said he has also heard increasing talk about recalling board members from the more than 100 callers to his office who want him to do something about the troubled city schools. Ray said he expects that will be one of the topics at three hearings he plans to hold next month on the problems of the schools.
"I think a lot of people are frustrated with the schools," said Ray, "and there's been a lot of mumbling about the school board as a result. That's why we're getting talk about the recall now . . . I think it's time for the mayor, the city council all to get involved to the extent of their legal authority and try to do something about the schools."
William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said his group is considering using the law to get some members of the board removed. During the recent teachers' strike union officials often mentioned the law to striking teachers, saying that retribution was coming for board members who opposed them.
Under the recall law all public officials except the District's delegate to congress and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners can be removed from office.
School board president Minnie S. Woodson said she fears the recall law will not be used by the public but by the teachers' union to attack members who do not give in to their demands. But Woodson said she does not think the new law will make the board into an impotent group that fears taking strong and possibly unpopular stands.
"I think we have enough stable thinking people in Washington , D.C. to know what recall is," said Woodson. "People are hollering it as a threat now but they've been hollering threats at us all along and you just have to ignore some of it. The problem with recall, you see, is that there are many things the board does that you can't hold one person responsible for. It takes a majority of the board to get anything done."
But board member Frank Shaffer-Corona said he hopes the recall law will get some board members out of office.
"I sent a letter to the mayor asking for speedy passage of the recall law," he said. "I want the recall of five, Woodson, Schwartz, Smith, Lockridge and Smith. Those five are not representing their community, as a matter of fact they are adversely affecting their constituency. I see the recall as the ultimate tool by which the citizens of Washington, D.C. can take back the offices that now belong to the special interests and return them to the people."
Barbara Lett Simmons, an at-large board member, said threats of recall are a result of the frustration residents of Washington have about all their city government institutions. She said the school board came face to face with the frustration because it is open to hear the public.
"The phenomenon of negative identification is a fascination phenomenon," said Simmons. "Negative identification is what a lot of black people are suffering from. It's self-hate. It is all over this city. It's not unique to this institution (the school board). But at least they have the chance to vent it on us. Every other agency, every other institution (in the city) is suffering from it."
The school board has been criticized for years. But recently the criticism has increased as some politicians, the teachers' union and some parents have begun to blame the troubles of the school system on the board. The criticism was particularly sharp during the recent teachers' strike when the board took a hard-line stance with the union and some persons felt the board was to blame for schools being closed. And there has been greater concern for students leaving the D.C. schools with severe problems in reading and math.
Pat Brown, a teacher at Ballou High school, described several problems at her school when she spoke before the board Wednesday night. She said she had been pressured to give a passing grade to a star athlete; she had seen a class at the school go without a teacher for six months; and had seen male teachers sexually engage their female students.
"This is not just happening at Ballou but across the city," Brown said. "I can't understand how the school board has allowed the schools to become what they have under the guise of helping children."
As Brown spoke several school board members were talking to each other, turning their heads away from Brown.
"That's why the children can't learn," said a woman in the audience pointing to the talking board members. "The board doesn't want to listen. They're rude."
The next speaker, George Gaines, continued the criticism of the board, saying: . . . One thing you forget, we, the community and the parents, run the schools and we are tired of getting no respect from the board. Don't forget that we're ready to use the recall bill right now. I'm looking into it."
After the meeting board president Woodson went to George Gaines, one of the persons who had threatened the board with recall and told him he was not fully aware of the extent of the problems facing the school board.
"The board knows what it is doing," said Woodson. "We're running a three hundred million dollar corporation and it's difficult to get a handle on everything at every point of the day . . . people out there see things differently. They see some of us talking for political expediency. But it's the ones who don't talk who aren't playing games. Things in this school system don't work well and we know it."
After the meeting Arthur Whitaker, one of the speakers who said he was considering having the board recalled, said the thought of losing political office is the only thing that could force the school board to improve the city schools.