As a college student, R. David Hall taught part time at an alternative school for dropouts. When the school lost its funding and closed, Hall successfully lobbied the city and federal governments to revive the program and in that exercise learned that politicians can exert more control in classrooms than educators.
Four years ago Hall, a real estate broker, ran for the school board from Ward 2 and beat an incumbent school board member to win his first elected city office. This year Hall, 36, now president of the board, is running for reelection and faces the Rev. Charles Briody, 43, a Unitarian Universalist minister who teaches English and Latin at the University of the District of Columbia. The election is Nov. 5.
The Ward 2 contest between Hall and Briody has produced few issues so far. Each candidate has been speaking before small forums sponsored by various community groups. Both candidates agree that improving junior and senior high schools should be a top priority of the board, but differ on how to accomplish such improvements.
Hall said he is seeking reelection because he is happy with his first four years and wants to continue. Briody said he wants the Ward 2 seat because he thinks he would be more aggressive and effective than Hall.
Political observers believe that one day Hall will run for the City Council, but Hall maintains that "I am not interested. I can help more people by doing what I am doing."
Hall's introduction to education, politics and money when he was founding the D.C. Street Academy led him to chair the board's finance committee for three years. While he was chairman, the school board and the mayor battled over the level of city spending for public schools. Hall successfully urged the board to take the city to court to get more money. He played a key role, along with the board president, the Rev. David Eaton, in the fight that resulted in significant budget increases for the schools.
"There was a decrease in the budget in 1979 and small increases for several years, but since 1982, there have been steady increases of 5 to 12.5 percent, which has kept us ahead of inflation," said one school official who asked not to be named.
Hall points to the budget as his most important accomplishment as a board member. He has also become known as a board member who pays attention to details, especially those that can improve teacher morale and student performance. For instance, he has successfully urged school officials to paint schools in Ward 2 and led an effort to pay all teachers and coaches involved in such extracurricular activities as choirs, bands, foreign language clubs and sports teams.
Hall initiated a retreat in the spring that brought together middle-management-level educators and school officials to map out strategies for improving schools.
"Before, it was only the superintendents and the board members who participated in these kinds of meetings," said James T. Guines, associate superintendent for school curriculum. "Hall and Linda Cropp, vice president of the board broadened the base so more voices could be heard. We discussed things we had to accomplish. We hadn't improved secondary schools. As a result of the meeting, we have a good plan for completing that task."
Hall was elected four years ago with other moderate board members including Eaton, who pledged to work together and end what had become a board custom of discord and backbiting. Eaton, who served three one-year terms in the presidency, is credited with giving the board its improved image.
Charles Briody, who is running against Hall, said, "While I think that as a citizen, Mr. Hall is every bit as qualified for any public office as I am, except for his experience with the Street Academy, his record appears lacking in educational background. I'm clearly more qualified as an educator than he is and more outstandingly qualified as a coalition builder in local and national politics to effectively and rapidly improve our school system."
Briody has degrees in Latin, linguistics and divinity from Columbia University and the University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley.
Briody, a longtime human rights activist, taught Latin at Banneker High School, the city's model academic school, until 1983 when he was the only teacher to protest the visit of a South African official to Banneker. Briody was reprimanded by superiors for the protest and his part-time contract was never renewed, he said.
Briody has said an important issue on the ballot is the rent control referendum which he supports. The measure seeks to overturn parts of the city's new rent control law that some tenants believe reduce renter protections.
Families with children would not be displaced by the stream of young, single professionals trying to move into the city from the suburbs and rents would be "kept reasonable" if the referendum passes, Briody said. "Thus the future of our educational system would be preserved." he said.
Hall and Briody are running in the city's most diverse ward, which stretches across the city from the fashionable addresses of Georgetown and Dupont Circle to downtown and east to the riot-scarred H Street corridor.
The ward is composed of about 82,000 people who are almost evenly divided between blacks and whites. The average income is $15,570, but 21 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, according to city statistics.
Most of the 19 public schools in the ward are elementary schools and students have scored close to the national norms on reading and math exams.
Hall, a Ward 2 native, sends his two daughters, ages 7 and 8, to Eaton Elementary School, in Ward 3, the city's only predominantly white ward and its wealthiest.
Hall said he made the potentially unpopular decision about his children's schooling because "I am not going to ask my children to change schools for political reasons."
Briody, who is single, has no children.
Briody is a loquacious man who is fond of injecting humor into his campaign speeches. But on the campaign trail, he has accused Hall of "using taxpayers' money and school board employes to ruin me and put an early end to my campaign against him."
Briody was referring to Hall's unsuccessful attempt to disqualify him three weeks ago. Hall alleged that about half of the names on Briody's petitions were either illegible or false.
The general counsel for the city Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that Briody had collected enough valid signatures for his candidacy.
Briody recently filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance alleging that Hall violated city law by doing "personal business" (campaign-related work) during work hours.
Briody and Hall also differ on educational issues such as how to improve the below-average test scores in city schools.
"There are instances of incompetence and neglect" among teachers, Hall said. The solution is to "give the principals the power to hire and fire teachers. They don't have the authority" to pick their own staffs now.
But Briody blamed principals for the poor performance of junior and senior high school students. Principals have failed to create the kind of morale necessary to stimulate teachers and students, he said.
"We need principals who are qualified and sensitive to channel resources to meet individual classroom needs and to inspire the school," Briody said. "The youngsters and the teachers are capable."
Hall said he doubts that the low level of achievement among high school students can be improved quickly. Until a more comprehensive back-to-basics program now used in the elementary schools is implemented in the secondary grades, Hall said, "the students who are already in the system will graduate without the benefit of the program ."
Briody said he is confident that all students can "make the grade this year" and criticized Hall's view.
"I think that's a defeatist approach, an approach that underscores his basic underestimation of the potential of our students and our teachers," Briody said. "I contend that every senior in the D.C. public high schools can be brought up to standard by June.
"Children who are so-called disadvantaged are demonstrably held back by the expectations of their teachers and the educational system," Briody said.