Otis Ducker, who is trying to win the 8th District seat on the Prince George's County school board, believes race played a part in his 1978 school board loss to Oxon Hill lawyer Angelo Castelli by 1,147 votes out of 8,000 cast.
"Black registered voters did not vote in significant numbers," said Ducker, 53, who is black. "And whites didn't believe me. I sounded like a moderate but because I was black they thought that I was militant."
This time Ducker would like the voters of Oxon Hill to see him sitting in his Bethesda office, managing a $55 million-a-year division at the National Institutes of Health.
But Castelli, 49, who is running for reelection, would like voters to see Ducker four years from now, when "he Ducker wants to be the senator from the southern part of the county."
Both men say race is not an issue in this campaign. Ducker says the issue is that school board members are not properly administering the schools, leaving too much up to superintendent Edward J. Feeney. Castelli strongly defends the current administration, citing changes like a stiffer discipline policy regarding students found with weapons or drugs.
Yet race is a factor that cannot be ignored: The current nine-member school board, overseeing a student body with a 51 percent black enrollment, has only one black member, Bonnie Johns. Parris Glendening, the favored county executive candidate, has said he may appoint a black to the school board to replace incumbent Jo Ann Bell if Bell wins a race for the County Council. If Ducker wins, then one-third of the board membership might become black.
The district Castelli and Ducker are fighting over is 52 percent black. Several schools in their district have been cited in the pending school desegregation suit by the county NAACP as becoming overwhelmingly black within less than 10 years because of an influx of blacks into the area and white flight. Castelli and Ducker differ on busing as a method of establishing an even racial mix in those schools.
Ducker believes "busing kids from totally white communities to totally black communities, or vice versa, is the only way to maintain school integration." Castelli says, "Busing hasn't succeeded in what it set out to do."
Castelli has gone out of his way to impress voters that black community leaders are on his side, according to some angry PTA presidents in the district. The presidents said that Castelli doctored a picture taken at a candidate forum to show him posing with several black PTA presidents. According to those presidents, Ducker was cut out of the picture, which ran in a local newspaper. Ducker says he is upset because some of those leaders support him.
Castelli denied that the picture was altered or cropped and said it implied no endorsement of him.
Though the school board contest is nonpartisan, county Democrats are taking more than passing interest in this race. Castelli's literature includes "acknowledgments" from popular Oxon Hill County Council member Sue V. Mills, whose former school board post he currently holds with her backing, and from Thomas V. Mike Miller, the influential chairman of the county's state Senate delegation.
Ducker, meanwhile, has received the endorsement of the county teachers' union and state Del. Christine Jones, a black schoolteacher who was the second highest vote-getter among eight candidates in the Democratic primary for delegate and Senate seats from the 26th Legislative District. He is also president of the Southern Prince George's Council on Black Affairs (COBA), whose members were credited with playing a significant role in last month's primary election.
Castelli, a respected senior trial lawyer with the Justice Department tax division, believes he has a mission to protect the schools for the three children he has in the system.
The son of an Italian immigrant ditch-digger, Castelli came to the Washington area in 1967 and earned a law degree from Catholic University while working as an accountant for the Internal Revenue Service.
Castelli would like to see stricter school requirements in mathematics and sciences, including programs in computers. Yet computers and other improvements may become casualties of the continuing budget crisis facing the county schools. As vice chairman of the school board, Castelli has been forced to preside over drastic cuts that increased class sizes, halted textbook purchases and slashed sports and extracurricular activities.
"No one foresaw the shortfall that came up," said Castelli.
Ducker, however, believes the board was "complacent" in placing the budget-cutting process entirely in the hands of superintendent Feeney and his staff. Though the budget shortfall had been predicted months before, the school board did not see the list of cuts until three days before they were adopted in June, Ducker said.
Ducker, who grew up in a poor New Orleans neighborhood, said he was just reaching success as a "rhythm and blues" band leader in the early 1950s when the Army brought him to Washington and made him think twice about a musical career. He went to work for NIH as a GS 2 stock clerk in 1953 and reached the top of the organization chart in the administrative services division in 1974.
Ducker plans to spend $6,000 on his campaign compared to Castelli's $4,500.
There is only one other contested race for the school board this year. Nancy Cummings, a teacher and member of the board of the Prince George's County Educators Association, is running against Paul R. Shelby, a Bowie lawyer and former schoolteacher. Leslie Kreimer, a homemaker, is running uncontested for her third term from Greenbelt.