Ten days before six of its members face the voters, the District school board is to host its first citywide parents' conference -- at a cost of up to $291,000, including a $100,000 reception, a $50,000 lunch, $22,500 in T-shirts, $10,000 worth of flowers and a $4,000 speech by journalist Carl Rowan.
Organizers say the Oct. 24 conference at the Washington Convention Center is a serious effort to involve parents in the school system. To some board members, it is an election extravaganza, a campaigner's dream.
"It's an election year and I'm going to go and work the conference well," said board member Bob Boyd (Ward 6), who is running for a second term. "But I'm opposed to spending that much money to politic with parents. I think it insults parents' integrity."
School Board President R. David Hall (Ward 2), who proposed the conference, said, "We have members who may think of this as a campaign opportunity, but I don't apologize for doing something to bring the parents of the city together." The board agreed Wednesday night to spend $67,000 in tax money on the meeting. Organizers hope corporate sponsors will pick up the rest of the bill; if they do not, the board will be asked to cover it.
Hall, who is not up for election this year, said the meeting, which he expects will draw 10,000 parents to 28 seminars on helping children achieve, is being held in late October because "that is the first date the Convention Center had available."
Convention Center sales manager Laverne Moss confirmed that but said the center had preferred that the school system hold the meeting in early November.
In the Nov. 3 school board election the six incumbents face a total of 16 opponents, although voter turnout and campaign spending are traditionally scant.
A budget drawn up by a school system committee shows plans for a Friday evening reception costing $10 for each of 10,000 guests, a Saturday lunch at $5 per person, $22,500 for 5,000 T-shirts, $20,000 for 10,000 tote bags, $35,000 for 10,000 programs, $10,000 for table flowers and centerpieces, and $18,900 in fees and expenses for speakers and consultants.
Board member Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), who is not up for reelection, called the plans "absurd" and "one of the nation's biggest public relations shows. For us to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a damn feel-good situation is outrageous. We can turn on the television and see Carl Rowan anytime."
School board members and administrators have long been frustrated by deep apathy among District parents. Board meetings rarely attract even a single parent observer. Some school PTAs hold meetings once a year or not at all, said Delabian Rice-Thurston, director of Parents United, a District activist group.
"Our test scores are not going to improve until the parents spend more time helping children learn to study," Hall said. He said the conference was intentionally planned to have no speeches by board members, but rather a series of workshops on motivating children, teaching writing, preparing for tests and communicating with teen-agers.
Hall said American Security Bank has donated $20,000 and McDonald's has pledged an unannounced amount. Other companies are still being courted.
Parents United supports the idea of a conference, Rice-Thurston said, although the group would rather present workshops showing "how to get rid of teachers who shouldn't be there, how to fix seriously leaking roofs, how to get through the administration bureaucracy.
"Sure, the $67,000 from the school budget could be spent otherwise, but if they really get most of the rest paid for by corporations, I can't question that," she said.
Hall said there is little flexibility in the cost of the conference because the Convention Center requires its customers to use its caterer. Convention Center manager Moss said there is no such requirement, but customers are required to pay the center's caterer a 20 percent fee if they use an outside vendor. That extra expense generally makes use of the in-house caterer more economical, she said.
School board Finance Committee Chairman Nate Bush (Ward 7), who is seeking reelection, and Hall said organizers will keep trying to streamline the cost of the meeting. For example, Rowan, who is scheduled to speak at the opening session, agreed to reduce his fee from $15,000 to $5,000 and then to $4,000, Hall said.
The board was unanimous in its support for the idea of a parent meeting. And "there's no question that all of us will take advantage of the opportunity to politic," Boyd said. But he still questions the necessity of spending even $67,000 for the conference. "I think we could hold it for free if we chose to," he said.