A Metro article on Thursday incorrectly reported that David Eaton was president of the D.C. school board when school superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie was appointed. Eugene Kinlow was the board president.
Five candidates are running for two at-large seats on the D.C. school board, including the two incumbents, the Rev. David Eaton and Barbara Lett Simmons. Technically the race is a free-for-all; the two candidates gaining the most votes will be the victors.
But many observers see Eaton coasting to victory, and see the real contest as a race between Simmons and challenger Phyllis E. Young for the other seat.
Young, perhaps the best-known of the challengers, ran for an at-large seat four years ago and came in fourth. This time, she opened her campaign by announcing that she was "running for the seat held by Barbara Lett Simmons," the senior member of the board who is seeking an unprecedented fourth term.
Eaton, who served as board president for three of the last four years and gained a reputation for diplomacy, is considered by most observers to be nearly unbeatable in Tuesday's election.
Under Eaton's leadership, Floretta D. McKenzie was appointed superintendent. Overall, school test scores improved and board meetings, long marred by infighting and personality clashes among members, now run much more smoothly.
So the race has centered on Simmons and Young. Simmons, who was first elected to the board in 1973, claims there is an "establishment candidate," but she stops short of naming Young. Del. Walter "Fauntroy and the mayor have decided that they have to wipe me out, so they're supporting another candidate against me in my bid for reelection," said Simmons, adding, "I won't name that person. I never call my opponent's name."
Young, a branch chief at the U.S. Department of Transportation and longtime parent activist in the schools, said she is definitely not the "establishment candidate. If the mayor is endorsing me, I haven't heard that," she said.
The only at-large candidate endorsed by the mayor is Eaton.
Also running in the at-large race are Jacqueline B. Shillings, 52, a registered nurse, and Benoit Brookens, 37, a lawyer and former City Council candidate.
For most of the candidates, this is a low-budget campaign. According to records at the Office of Campaign Finance, Eaton has raised the most money to date, about $5,000. All of the other candidates, including Simmons, reported about $200 raised, according to records available at the finance office.
"I'm a very frugal person," said Simmons, who admitted she's using the posters from her 1977 campaign.
"What I'm opting for is services rather than money," said Shillings, who is also vice president of the Banneker Senior High School Council. "I need people to help sell me. I value time more than money."
As for issues, Shillings, who has also worked with the Mayor's Summer Youth Program, said, "I am also interested in seeing that children are job-ready when they graduate.
"I also see serving as a challenge for me in contributing from a health point of view, working on such issues as teen-age parenting, and improving our severe deficit of education about AIDS," said Shillings.
Brookens, a tenants rights activist, said, "I've been concerned that youngsters gain good moral values through the schools . . . . I would promote that they learn more about issues like South Africa so they would know they can be the best accountants, marketing directors or whatever, yet to make money investing in a system of human depreciation would not be to anyone's benefit."
Simmons said, "There is one serious issue. This election marks the end of nonpartisan elections for the school board." Simmons was referring to a new law that moves school board races, which now occur in odd-numbered years, to coincide with mayoral and City Council races, which occur in even-numbered years.
"The issue is not personalities," said Simmons, who would not give her age. She explained that the people who support her "are the people who . . . are not intimidated by the powers that be, and those who feel the best evidence of competence is demonstrated competence and not articulated competence."
While Simmons is particularly proud of her work to strengthen high school vocational programs, Young, 45, accuses the incumbent of being too busy "running for City Council in 1981 and 1984" to properly oversee the vocational programs, which have high dropout rates.
Young has picked up endorsements from organizations that include the Communications Workers of America, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and the Gay Activists Alliance.
Simmons' endorsements include the Greater Washington Central Labor Council, the Washington Teachers Union and the Langston Hughes-Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club.
Eaton has picked up endorsements from a long list of supporters, including the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the Washington Teachers Union and City Council members Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) and Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8).
He is hoping supporters won't be overconfident and sit at home on Nov. 5. "That's the biggest way to lose," said Eaton. "I encourage people to go out and vote and not take anything for granted."
In challenging Simmons, Young said in her press release: "I want to join the incumbents who are up for reelection and who are a part of this harmonious majority -- David Eaton, David Hall, and Wanda Washburn."
Her reference to a "harmonious majority" was reminiscent of the at-large school board race in 1981 when challengers made the board's reputation for fractiousness a major issue. Simmons and then board member Frank Shaffer-Corona were specifically attacked because they were partly blamed for driving popular school superintendent Vincent E. Reed from office in 1980. Reed is now a vice president at The Washington Post.
Shaffer-Corona lost his seat. Simmons, a longtime Democratic party activist, was able to draw upon her political connections as well as public support, winning a third term on the board.
Under the current president, David Hall, the upward trend in board efficiency has continued. Still, the District's public schools suffer the stigma of being considered inadequate, secondary school students continue to score below national norms on standardized tests and new problems, such as the need to improve services to Hispanic students, are cropping up. But the perception by most parents seems to be that the school board is on the right track.
"It's sort of quiet this year," said Ruth Harris, president of the D.C. PTA. "I haven't heard people talking a great deal about dissension on the present board."
Even when it comes to choosing between Simmons and Young, Patricia Green, former chairwoman of the PTA's elemetary and secondary education committee, said, "I think it's just a question of methods. Mrs. Lett Simmons is very vocal and to the point. It's just a question of style."
Young and her supporters hope that public support from Manuel B. Lopez, who placed fourth in the last at-large school board race will give her the victory.
In the 1981 election Lopez garnered 18,486 and Young earned 17,903. Simmons was reelected with 22,649 votes. This time around Lopez said he hopes his supporters will swing to Young.
"I think David Eaton has performed adequately and will be reelected," said Lopez, a member of the coalition that holds fund-raisers and rallies on behalf of Young. "Barbara Lett Simmons has been variable in her performance and is subject to criticism," he said.
But some people are having a harder time choosing between Simmons and Young. When the political committee of the Washington Teacher's Union suggested that its members endorse Young, members went against the recommendation and instead voted to endorse Simmons.
While Young did not receive the WTU endorsement, she has picked up the endorsement of Ward 6 school board member Bob Boyd, who explained, "Phyllis Young and I cochaired Parents United for Full Funding, now called Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. Today, we have in place a more mature, more articulate network of special-education parents than any other time in recent memory and Young has been instrumental in that effort . . . .