Incumbents in the city school board election are under siege, riddled by both their opponents and the turbulent image of the D.C. Board of Education on which they serve.
As the campaign unfolds, the five incumbents appear to be encouraging voters to forget they are members of a highly controversial board. At the same time, they are pointing to their accomplishments on the board to fend off criticism from their challengers.
Nineteen challengers have focused their political attacks on the incumbents in what observes say is one of the broadest attacks since 1971. That was the year in which Mayor Marion Barry was elected to the school board on a promise to restore order.
This year, frequent bickering, feuding and internal divisions on the board are being blamed for the short-comings of the school system.
As a result, each of the incumbents -- Conrad P. Smith (Ward 1), Victoria T. Street (Ward 4), Bettie G. Benjamin (Ward 5), John E. Warren (Ward 6) and Eugene Kinlow (At-Large) -- is walking a different kind of tightrope to avoid the possible pitfalls of incumbency in the Nov. 6 election.
Street, who represents Ward 4 in upper Northwest Washington, takes credit for initiating a parent-community health task force, which she says discusses health and nutrition in schools.
Street, however, is quick to separate herself from the other school board members. Unlike them, she said, she has represented the school board with "dignity, common sense and wisdom."
"My style has never been to personally attack anyone. I may have been the victim of those comments, but I don't engage in that kind of rhetoric . . . That is one of the reasons the board has been criticized."
Street has often been among the back-to-basics majority on the frequently bickering board.
Ward 5's Benjamin, who has been on the board since 1974, is a member of the minority faction, and has a much simpler strategy for establishing political distance.
"Don't lump me in what that bunch," she said. "That bunch," she explained, is the majority on the school board.
The majority on the 11-member board generally has consisted of six members -- Conrad Smith, Alaire Rieffel, Carol Schwartz, Street, Minnie S. Woodson and R. Calvin Lockridge.
Benjamin said she has been able to get some Ward 5 school placed on the city's capital improvement budget. As a result, she said, McKinley and Spingarn high schools were scheduled for modernization.
She also notes that during the teacher strike she supported keeping the teacher's contract in place until the issues were resolved and did not sign the court petition against the teachers.
She said she supports legislation that would give the school board more control over contracts, particularly in the area of repairs.
Warren, the Ward 6 incumbert who has been on the board since 1975, is another member of the board's minority. When the issue of the board came up last week during a forum sponsored by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, he made it clear where he wanted to be counted.
"I have accomplished a number of things while on the school board, but I can't be responsible for what other school board members have done." he said.
The major accomplishments he cited where proposing a new school curriculum to help students improve test scores and tightening school building security.
Eugene Kinlow has perhaps the easiest time differentiating himself from the board. Elected May 1 to fill the vacancy created by Betty Ann Kane's election to the City Council, Kinlow has been a member of the board for only five months.
Kinlow pointedly tells his audiences that is he "new" and should not be associated with incumbents.
Conrad P. Smith, of Ward 1, once president of the board, is alone among the incumbents in feeling that having been on the board does not make for a political problem.
Smith, who has been on the school board since 1975, said he has not heard a single voter in his ward say he or she felt there was a need for a new school board.
"I admit there is a perception in some areas of the city that there is a need for a new school board, but it is a misperception. Most of those people have never attended a school board meeting."
Smith, who is part of the voting majority on the school board, said the real problem with the school board rests with "hostile, uninformed and ill-prepared" members of the board's minority.
He named Barbara Lett Simmons (At-Large) and Frank Shaffer-Corona (At-Large). Simmons and Shaffer-Corona both denied the charges.
The incumbents are not running as a slate, and they have no common campaign strategies. Kinlow is the only incumbent endorsed by a major elected official in the city.
Warren and Benjamin have been endorsed by the Washington Teachers Union. Neither was a part of the board group that initiated court action during the 23-day teachers' strike earlier this year.
Not surprisingly, most of the candidates are opposed to Major Barry's proposal to reduce the school budget by $10 million next year.
"The major issue in this race is the budget. The major of the city is seeking to cut the budget, and that will nip in the bud progress we have been able to make on the school board," Benjamin said.
Barry has also put his own political organization to work for a full slate of candidated that includes only one incumbent -- newcomer Kinlow. Those running for reelection are divided on whether they are concerned about or indifferent to the actions of Barry and other council members who have supported school board candidates.
Wile challengers have criticized the school board, there are a number of supporters who have come to the defense of several board members because they did not bend in the wake of pressure by the teachers union and the mayor.
Also, in recent months, the student test scores have shown a slight increase, which has been cited by some members as a beginning of progress for the school system.
Another issue in the race is the concern that the school board has been used as a launching pad for political careers and that school board members have not focused their attention on the school board. Street and Smith have made unsuccessful bids for the City Council. Both now say the plan to stay and work on the school board for an entire four-year term, if reelected.