Students at Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington had some tough questions and they wanted some straight answers from the five school board candidates who visited them yesterday afternoon as part of a political education exercise.
In response to students' questions that ranged from what they could do about termite-eaten floors to what actions they would take concerning students suffering from AIDS, candidates made attractive promises, gave impromptu lectures, traded barbs with each other and urged the 200 fourth, fifth and sixth graders to tell their parents to vote for them on Nov. 5.
Special education teacher Audrey Austin, who coordinated the event, said, "Each year, we have something to educate the children about the world of politics and how it shapes their lives. This makes the candidates more than pictures on lampposts."
She added that the students are able to question and examine candidates for themselves and learn valuable lessons about a trade called campaigning.
Barbara Lett-Simmons, an at-large incumbent, said in her most charming voice: "I've been on the Board of Education for 12 years and I will be there three more years because you will tell your mommies and your daddies to vote for me, right?"
R. David Hall, incumbent from Ward 2 where the school is located, promised to "get some new playground equipment" for Bowen students after fourth-grader Terrence Rivers asked about the decaying basketball court and the missing swings and slides behind the school building.
"You picked a good time to ask me that question, young man," Hall said, smiling. "I promise you that that will be my No. 1 agenda item on Nov. 6," the day after the election.
Lett-Simmons again took to the lectern, situated on the stage of the school's small multipurpose room, and tried to outdo Hall with a promise of her own after a student complained that high temperatures usually force pupils to leave overheated classrooms in the red-brick edifice.
"I'm not going to wait until Nov. 6 to get some fans in here," Lett-Simmons said. "When I leave this forum, I'm going to get on the phone and call and get you all some fans. How many do you need?"
When asked what she could do to repair a classroom floor that was ruined by termites, at-large candidate Jacqueline Shillings, said, "First of all, that's a health hazard. Some of the people already in office have to act on that now."
Also appearing at the forum were candidates Phyllis Young, an at-large candidate; the Rev. Charles Briody, candidate for Ward 2, and the Rev. David Eaton, an incumbent at-large member.
Daniel Hinton, 10, a sixth grader, said Lett-Simmons and Hall appeared to make promises they couldn't keep.
"I think it's going to be a lot later than they said it would take for us to get our fans and our playground equipment," he said. "We called the shop where they keep the fans and people there said they ran out."
Presharn Stanley, 10, a fifth grader, said Hall and Lett-Simmons had visited the school previously and noted some of the problems then.
Though some improvements were made in recent years, such as new paint for interior walls, she said, other problems were ignored. "They knew about the playground and the fans . . . . They should have done something already."