For a few moments yesterday, it looked as if the fractious D.C. Board of Education had finally stopped bickering.
Ward 4 representative Dwight E. Singleton took the president's seat at the center of the dais. Ward 1 representative Wilma R. Harvey slid quietly into the chair at his side, just four days after Singleton and five others voted to remove her as board president.
But before Singleton could say a word, Harvey posed the question she always uses to open school board meetings: "Madam Executive Secretary," she boomed, "do we have a quorum?"
Chaos erupted. Board members demanded to speak as Harvey and Singleton interrupted each other, each claiming to be president.
The fight lasted several minutes, until the board executive secretary ruled that last week's 6 to 5 vote to oust Harvey was valid unless Harvey challenges it in court--and wins.
Singleton then asked for discussion on the board's first agenda item, whether to approve a new ethics policy. Harvey was the first to raise her hand.
"Mr. Vice President. Mr Singleton," she said, emphasizing Singleton's board office before he was elected president.
He called on someone else.
"I had my hand up!" Harvey protested. "Oh," Singleton said, as if hearing her voice for the first time. "Would you like to speak?"
The new policy, after a brief discussion, was approved 6 to 4. The vote reflected the same board split as the vote to oust Harvey, with one Harvey supporter, Angie K. Corley (Ward 5), absent yesterday.
The second item on the board's agenda was election of a vice president to succeed Singleton. The six-member majority chose Ward 6 representative Benjamin Bonham, seemingly inflaming the leadership controversy instead of quelling it. Bonham made headlines shortly after his 1996 election when it was disclosed he had failed to pay more than $20,000 in support to a child he fathered with a teacher while working as a high school coach.
"As far as I'm concerned, [Bonham is] a deadbeat dad and scum of the earth," said Larry Gray, who plans to run for Bonham's school board seat next year.
Yesterday's bickering was a continuation of last week's school board wars, which left parents and city officials shaking their heads about the elected board's future. The new board coalition has vowed to reshape and reenergize the struggling panel and prove it worthy of regaining authority next June to run the school system--authority that was seized by the D.C. financial control board 2 1/2 years ago.
But Harvey said those aligned against her demonstrated their flightiness by staging the first ouster of a sitting president in the board's 31-year history. She said she has held off going to court in hopes of mediating her differences with the six members who no longer support her.
Board members will meet tonight with the D.C. Council education committee chairman, Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), to try to work out a compromise. If that doesn't work, Harvey and her lawyer said, they will fight her removal in court.
"It's like a bad dream," Harvey said in an interview. "I've done all I can do to try and preserve the institution called the Board of Education."
Gray, legislative chairman of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, tipped the media to Bonham's child support problems in 1996 and accompanied the mother of Bonham's child to court.
Bonham said yesterday that he stopped payments for a few years after a house fire caused him financial "hardship." He has resumed providing for the child monthly, he said, and some of the money comes from the court-ordered garnishing of a portion of his $15,000 school board stipend.
"This is something that is handled between she and I," he said.
At-large representative Tonya Vidal Kinlow said she and others in the coalition recognized that Bonham's past might be an issue if he was made vice president. But "he has a much more flexible schedule than some of the people who are involved in this effort," she said. "He agrees with where we're trying to lead this board, and he very much wanted to take on this leadership role."