Challengers for the five D.C. school board seats in the Nov. 3 election think they have the key to electoral success -- sharply attack the board's "bad image" and criticize the board members' comparatively high salaries and large administrative staffs.
In public forums across the city, before such varied groups as the D.C. Women's Political Caucus and the Malcolm X Cultural Center members, several of the 25 challengers have complained that the current 11 board members spend more time squabbling among themselves than setting educational policies.
Some of the candidates have called for a clean sweep of the four incumbents seeking reelection -- Barbara Lett Simmons and Frank Shaffer-Corona, who serve at large, and R. Calvin Lockridge in Ward 8 and Alaire B. Rieffel in Ward 2. In Ward 3, incumbent Carol Schwartz is not seeking reelection.
Stories on the Ward 3 and Ward 8 school board races appear in today's District Weekly.
There have been numerous debates and most of the candidates have spoken to a variety of neighborhood gatherings. By and large, they have not attracted large crowds, but nonetheless have sharply debated such issues as the need for more career-oriented education, discipline in the schools and the amount of "meddling" by the board in the day-to-day operations of the school system.
"We need a complete change in board membership," at-large candidate Frank P. Bolden, told members of the women's caucus earlier this week. "Right now we are the laughing stock not just of the city, but of the nation," added Bolden, former director of health, physical education and athletics for the city schools, who retired last year after 39 years in the school system.
The incumbents battling this chorus of criticism have in turn accused their opponents of making the board's image and expenses a primary issue in the campaign only because they lack knowledge of what they say are more substantive educational issues facing the D.C. school system.
"Board members are not supposed to be Madison Avenue types worried about image, but the people's voice telling the professional educators what's needed," countered Shaffer-Corona, who appeared at one forum this week wearing a T-shirt that said, "Love is . . . loving a black child."
Bolden, one of 15 candidates trying to unseat Simmons and Shaffer-Corona, has said he will take no salary if elected, but suggested that the board members should receive only about $6,500 for expenses, including travel and parking.
Other at-large candidates, including Manuel B. Lopez, the chairman of the Adams-Morgan Neighborhood Advisory Commission, Ernest B. Mercer, principal of Langdon Elementary School in Northeast Washington, and Jonas Milton, housing director of the Southeast Neighborhood House, and Ward 2 hopeful R. David Hall, a local real estate broker, have also said they would seek to cut the $847,041 that the school board spends on staff, travel, salaries and other expenses.
For the past two years, board members have received an annual salary of about $18,000 and the board president $22,000, even though board positions are supposed to be part time.
D.C. board members earn the highest salaries of any area school board members, and have more secretaries, researchers and executive assistants, according to a Washington Post survey last year. Prince George's County, which has 22,000 more students than the District, pays its school board members $6,500 a year and the school board chairman $7,000.
Some of the District candidates, excluding themselves, say the large field of challengers has been attracted by the relatively high salaries. However, many of the candidates say they are running because they believe the school system is at a crossroads, with a popular new superintendent, Floretta D. McKenzie, and signs of improved student achievement, but at the same time shrinking financial resources.
Simmons said she felt much of the bitterness and infighting on the board is caused by the fact that board members must select a president from among themselves each year.
Simmons, who has unsuccessfully tried to get elected board president, said some board members "spend half the year trying to figure out how they're going to become president" and the rest of the year "rewarding" those who supported them and "punishing" those who tried to thwart them.
She suggested that voters should elect the board president on an at-large basis.
Rieffel, who represents the Dupont Circle area, Shaw and Southwest Washington north of the Potomac River, complained that she is being unfairly caught up in an effort to "throw the rascals out.
"Not everyone on the board has contributed to its bad image," she said. "I have worked hard. I have not been a part of the problem. But some people forget that and link me with the entire board." Rieffel is being challenged by Hall, founder of an alternative program for dropouts, and Marjorie Maceda, a Catholic school teacher and president of the Amidon Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association.
In the Ward 8 race, where six candidates are opposing Lockridge, the incumbent's outspoken and temperamental personality has overshadowed educational issues. Lockridge has been highly vocal in his criticism of Mayor Marion Barry and other city officials for what he says has been their lack of financial support for the school system, and has at times made unconventional proposals, such as closing the schools west of Rock Creek Park to save money.
Although the incumbent is not running in Ward 3, two well-known community activists, Mary Ann Keeffe and Wanda Washburn, are both waging highly visible campaigns.
Although all the school board races are nonpartisan, much of Keeffe's support is coming from Democartic Party faithfuls since she was once head of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee and headed Sen. Edward Kennedy's presidential campaign in the District.
Washburn's support comes mainly from parent groups. She says she has been active for 11 years in city schools and was president of three parent-teacher groups in Ward 3. She has numerous young voters working for her campaign who know her through her volunteer service at Wilson High School.
In the latest round of endorsements, the Washington Teachers Union this week said it supports Simmons and the Rev. David H. Eaton, senior minister of All Soul's Church, for the at-large slots; Phinis Jones, a representative of Local 25 of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union and a former aide to Ward 8 City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark, in Ward 8, and Washburn in Ward 3. The union endorsed no candidate in Ward 2.
The other at-large candidates are Trummie Cain, Angie King Corley, Dorothy Cresswell, Andrea Gonzalez, Charlotte Holmes, Athel Q. Liggins,, Kathryn Bailey Moore, Berlene D. Newhouse, Edwin C. Parker and Phyllis E. Young.
Also running in Ward 8 are O.V. Johnson, Absalom F. Jordan Jr., Linda H. Moody, the Rev. Edward H. Moore and Gordon A. White.
There also will be a referendum on an educational tax credit on the ballot and voters will pick delegates to a statehood constitution convention and Advisory Neighborhood Commission members.