Assemble 700 parents and students. Give D.C. Board of Education candidates the chance to campaign before them, and the setting seems a candidate's dream-come-true.
But not last week. The candidates found themselves unwelcome guests before a restless, disgruntled crowd of more than 700 at the first McKinley High School PTA meeting of the year.
They were scheduled to speak, but the meeting had lasted past 9:30 p.m., and tired parents and students wanted the meeting to end so they could visit teachers in classrooms.
A hand went up from a protesting mother. "We are supposed to meet with the teachers in their classrooms . . . ," she said. "We don't have time to hear the candidates speak, it is just not that important." Thunderous applause punctuated her complaint.
Still another parent protested. "It is our little children we are talking about and their education. The children and their teachers have to get up early tomorrow for school, and we have to go to work. Can't we listen to the candidates some other time?"
Finally, the candidates spoke briefly. They have been better received in other forums.
As the campaign for five ward seats and one at-large post enters the final days, the two major aspects of being on the school board -- politics and education -- are bumping into each other as the 23 candidates vie for attention, and ultimately, votes.
There is heightened political drama because Mayor Marion Barry has injected himself into the campaign by privately endorsing a slate of candidates and proposing a $10-million school budget cut that has become a campaign issue.
At the same time, however, there are some parents -- and a few candidates, too -- who would just as soon hear less of the politics and more the the ABC's of education.
"I have heard what the candidates have said about issues like closing schools and the problems of the school board," Rosslyn Roberts, the mother of two, said after a recent candidates forum. "But my main concern is about my child's education."
In making their campaign promises to voters throughout the city, the candidates portray a school troubled by an exodus of middle-class children, persistent substandard student test scores and a teaching program that produces high school graduates who cannot read or write.
In some instances, the schools promote students primarily on the basis of age rather than achievement, at-large incumbent Eugene Kinlow complained to the McKinley High audience. "We ought to cut out the foolishness of fooling students and promoting them from one grade to another because of their age," he said.
Jeanette Feely, another contender in the at-large race, said the school system needs a greater variety of programs, including more vocational education programs in Anacostia and an expansion of the gifted youth programs all over the city.
Ward 7 candidate Emily Washington laid the blame on a school board that she accused of forgetting its reason for being. "It's been politicized," she said of the board. "I'd like to be about the business of children learning, and it seems to me that we've lost sight of that."
Incumbents like Victoria Street apparently disagree. She told a Ward 4 candidate forum audience recently that the system has moved forward and student test scores have improved.
Edward L. Hancock, a one-time board member from Ward 7 who is trying to get back on the board, held a somewhat similar view. "I'm not the man that's gonna beat the dead horse and say that the public schools are failing," Hancock said during a forum at Ryland Epworth United Methodist Church in Southeast Washington.
Hancock said the problem was a need for better leadership, a contention that was also made by Ward 4 candidate Laplois Ashford.
Ashford said the school system must have clearly established priorities and develop an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
Reginald H. Booker, a Ward 1 candidate, agreed. "We have a crisis in education brought on by a lack of leadership," he said.
The once-fashionable appeal for educational innovation in this predominantly black school system fell on deaf ears at one forum last week when at-large candidate Joseph Webb downplayed the significance of uniform achievement tests which some consider culturally biased against blacks.
"People have put too much emphasis on tests. These standardized tests mean absolutely nothing," Webb said.
Kinlow followed him to the lectern and was soundly applauded when he said, "While we're busy trying to get cultural bias out of these things, we ought to be getting our kids ready to pass them."
Barry's proposal to reduce the school budget by $10 million continues to be a major item of debate. Even some candidates supported by Barry oppose it. Last week, the mayor made a personal effort to sell the budget cut to the people by making his pitch to the audience at McKinley.
However, despite a lengthy explanation of his reasons for the cuts, one parent stood up after the speech and pointedly asked the mayor twice, "Why did you cut the school system's budget when you know the school system is in trouble?"
At-large candidate Stuart Rosenblatt has been pointedly calling for defeat of Barry's budget and the Barry slate. The mayor supports Linda W. Cropp in Ward 4, Loraine R. Bennett in Ward 6, Frank Smith Jr. in Ward 1, Matthew F. Shannon in Ward 5, Nathaniel (Nate) Bush in Ward 7 and incumbent Kinlow for the at-large spot.
Barry has scheduled these candidates for appearances at fundraisers.
Although the political issues seem to be of utmost importance to candidates, at least one parent, who was at the McKinley High School PTA meeting, felt differently. "I am not following the school board race," he said. "I don't have any problems with the school system. My daughter is receiving As, and her teacher cares about her. That is all I am concerned about."
Board of Education Candidates At-Large Eugene Kinlow* Charlotte R. Holmes Jeanette Feely Joseph Webb Stuart Rosenblatt Ward 1 Anwar S. Saleem R. H. Booker James W. Curry Conrad P. Smith* Frank Smith Jr. Ward 4 Laplois Ashford Vickie Street* Phil Pannell Linda W. Cropp Ward 5 Bettie G. Benjamin* Matthew F. Shannon Ward 6 John E. Warren* Linda J. Gilbert Loraine Bennett Ward 7 Emily Y. Washington America Crew Nelson Nathaniel "Nate" Bush Ed Hancock *Incumbent