When school board candidate Phyllis Young says that ''the citizens of the District of Columbia deserve a respected and respectable board of education,'' she echoes other challengers who are making personality and image -- the fractious image of the current board -- issues in the November school board election.
In 1979, when six seats on the 11-member board were up for grabs, it was easy for challengers to run against the incumbents. Their behavior during that year's disruptive 23-day teachers' strike had been roundly criticized. Their squabbles with popular school superintendent Vincent E. Reed were legion. There was a general "throw the rascals out" feeling in the community that the challengers exploited.
But this time around, with two at-large seats and seats from wards 2, 3 and 8 being contested, the record would seem to indicate that running against the incumbents will be more difficult.
Now Reed is gone, replaced by the board's widely applauded choice for the job, Floretta D. McKenzie. Relatively speaking, there has been peace among the teaching ranks, even though more than 400 teachers were laid off last year during the city's budget crisis. And the board managed to make sizable reductions in its budget during the past year without much impact on services.
The students also have been responding positively. "For three years in a row, (standardized) test scores have been rising," said longtime schools volunteer Wanda Washburn, a candidate for the Ward 3 seat being vacated by board member Carol Schwartz. "We can't criticize that, can we?"
In fact, the villain on the budget issue, if there is one, is Mayor Marion Barry, who cut the schools' funds to the bone. Ironically, Barry tried to wear the hero's hat two years ago in the settlement of the strike.
But there is a lingering problem of the board's image as a bunch of politically ambitious bumblers who fight with each other and with everyone else available for fighting. The problem is acknowledged by an incumbent who is expected to face a fight in retaining her seat.
"No question" that there is an image problem, said at-large member Barbara Lett Simmons. "And it takes years to turn an image around, no matter what you do."
Said economist Mary Ann Keeffe, another candidate for the Ward 3 seat being vacated by Schwartz: "A lot of people hear about budget disputes and they ask, 'Why should we give those crazy people anything?' "
Phyllis Young, an at-large candidate who was involved in Parents United for Full School Funding, the group that pressured Barry for more money for the schools, is one of the more up-front candidates about making image an issue.
"Nothing disheartens me more than to hear a child smirked at, people saying 'Oh, you go to the public schools,' and what they're really talking about is the image of these grown-ups on the board," Young said in an interview earlier this week.
One of the at-large incumbents that Young and 16 other challengers will be trying to knock off is Frank Shaffer-Corona, one of the members most often involved in the board's squabbles. Shaffer-Corona's most publicized adventure was a trip to Beirut during the Iranian hostage crisis which he called an attempt to free the Hispanics among the hostages. There was controversy on the board over his billing the school system for phone calls to the Mideast.
Shaffer-Corona blames the poor image on the press' treatment of school issues.
"If The Post and the media have their way, the two major issues will be Barbara Lett Simmons and myself," he said. "The election should resolve around issues like closing schools and the need for expanding our services in some areas, not on how many paper clips I use or where I take a trip."
Simmons also blamed the media. She said that Reed generally got the credit for things that worked, while the board took the heat for things that went wrong -- like the high failure rate of students under Reed's pet Competency Based Curriculum program.
Young denied that she is running specifically against Shaffer-Corona, saying, "His record certainly speaks for itself."
But she added, "The board has to be able to communicate effectively. It has to be able to listen, to hear and to respond. . . . (The board's) responsibility is to set the policy for the public schools, and put the period there. They have to have some kind of relationship with the superintendent to let her do her job." That appeared to be a reference to the well-publicized battle between Reed and some board members.
Said Keeffe: "The board is known as a place of confrontational politics. They don't get along with each other, with the school administration or with other elected officials. It's a problem."
Or so the challengers hope.