In many ways, it's a thankless job, short of fame, glory or cash. The mayor frequently bosses you around. The D.C. Council bosses you around. Parents boss you around.
Still, for all of its rigors, membership on the D.C. Board of Education is as coveted as ever this fall, as 32 candidates across the city scramble to secure five seats available on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
In years past, school board elections often have provoked little more than a chorus of yawns, but not this time. Like the rest of the city's political establishment this year, the 11-member board, which plays a large role in shaping the lives of 82,000 District children, is on the verge of an overhaul.
Two of its veteran members, Linda W. Cropp (Ward 4) and Eugene Kinlow (At Large), are leaving, and the contests for their seats are wide open. In Ward 4, there are 12 candidates. For the citywide seat, there are 11.
Meanwhile, in a race that could drastically alter the board's character, longtime Ward 8 member R. Calvin Lockridge, one of the most combative and unpredictable politicans in the city, is facing a strong challenge from parent activist Linda H. Moody.
Two other incumbents, board President Nate Bush (Ward 7) and R. David Hall (Ward 2), also face opposition.
It's the largest field of candidates in years, and whoever wins will join a board that seems on the brink of bringing substantial change -- or still more turmoil -- to the city's 175 schools.
Board members are preparing to replace Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, whose contract expires in June. They have a widely praised agenda for change, but apparently little money to act. Buildings are in desperate need of repair. Enrollment is dwindling -- and so is parent patience with the school system's continuing record of mediocrity.
Meanwhile, corporate interest in aiding schools has never been greater, but many would-be donors are seeking assurances that the board is committed to cleaning up its act.
"This is a very pivotal time," said Kinlow, who is leaving the board after nine years. "The school system for the last three years has been floundering and stagnating, but this looks like a great moment of opportunity."
The election of a new mayor, council chairman and congressional delegate next month may help. But no one has a larger part in helping or neglecting schools than the board, whose members are paid about $26,000 a year.
Its role in school affairs, and especially in dealing with the superintendent, is under intensive scrutiny in the last weeks of the campaign.
Jenkins's fate has become a key issue for many candidates. The board is expected to hire a replacement for him by next spring, but some candidates do not believe the board has treated him fairly and have promised that, if elected, they'll work to keep him on the job.
Jenkins, much to the board's chagrin, appears to be lending support in several races to candidates who want him to stay. Both Cropp and Kinlow preferred that his contract not be renewed, but their successors might differ, and that could help tilt the board in Jenkins's favor.
"The superintendent is backing his own candidates," said William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union. "That's quite unusual."
Another new issue in many board campaigns is whether the school system's curricula should be revamped to emphasize African history and the achievements of black Americans as a way to boost the interest of its students, 92 percent of whom are black.
Jenkins wants to spend $750,000 on the idea, but has not yet said when or how it would be implemented in classrooms. In the meantime, debate is growing at candidate forums about whether the curricula should simply emphasize the historical achievements of blacks or of many other cultures as well.
Although the candidates battling incumbents Bush and Hall face long odds against winning, the three other races have no clear favorites.
In Ward 8, Lockridge is seeking a fourth term, but for the first time has only one opponent, Moody. She has won the teachers union endorsement -- the union refused to interview Lockridge -- but Lockridge contends that his support is strong.
"People are backing me now who were never with me before," he said. "They realize that it's too critical a time for the schools to hand things over to someone with no experience."
In Ward 4, there is no heir apparent to Cropp. However, Lee S. Manor, a teacher running with union support; parent activists Priscilla Arlene Gay and C.B. Griffin; and advisory neighborhood commissioner E. Ned Sloan have formidable campaigns.
The at-large race has 11 candidates, including Shawn X Brackeen, a teacher who is one of the first Nation of Islam members to run for office locally.
Former school board member Bettie G. Benjamin has the teachers union endorsement, but Jay Silberman, a leader with the schools advocacy group Parents United, is running with the support of council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large) and several prominent principals. Valencia Mohammed, a prominent local advocate of African-centered curricula, appears to have Jenkins's blessing.
Aurelia Corbett King
Shawn X Brackeen
Milton W. Collier
Audrey C. Hipkins
Bettie G. Benjamin
R. David Hall
Stella S. Gomes
E. Ned Sloan
Kelvin W. Young
Lee S. Manor
Philip G. Hampton II
Dennis L. Fitch
Priscilla Arlene Gay
Ada W. Carter
Robert L. Matthews
Linda H. Moody
R. Calvin Lockridge