The D.C. Board of Education had been consistently criticized by the mayor, belittled by the D.C. Council and dogged by parents when Bill Lightfoot told associates he would put his money where everyone else's mouths were: He would run for school board president, unseat the polarizing incumbent and usher in a more productive era of school leadership.
"It's always distressed me that in a town where people are very well educated, more people don't get involved with the school board," Lightfoot, a former D.C. Council member, said in a recent interview.
But when it came time to file his official campaign declaration in August, Lightfoot balked, citing a lack of support from Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Williams's staff said the mayor was too busy with his own reelection campaign to endorse school board candidates.
If Lightfoot's decision left a void, no one else stepped into it. Despite criticism that she's dictatorial, ineffective and confrontational, President Peggy Cooper Cafritz will run unopposed on the Nov. 5 ballot as she seeks a four-year term.
In fact, Cafritz is one of two board members running unchallenged, leaving only a four-person race in District 3 with any drama. This has prompted city leaders and school activists to express alarm that so few people are seeking this important job at a critical time.
The school board sets policy for the troubled 67,500-student system, oversees a $938 million budget and manages a capital building program of more than $2 billion. But city officials, parents and former school board members say several factors have contributed to a sense that being on the board is a tedious and, often, thankless job: the low salary and long hours; a lack of respect from other city leaders; and the monumental challenge of fixing a system populated largely by students who are struggling socially and academically.
"I wonder if it's not some question as to whether it's possible, from a seat on the Board of Education, to have much of an impact," said Bob Peck, a former mayoral appointee to the school board who is chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "There are a lot people genuinely interested in reform but who think being on the board might not be the way to do it."
In addition to Cafritz, William Lockridge, who represents District 4, also is unopposed. In District 3, incumbent Tommy Wells is facing three challengers -- former board member Benjamin Bonham, former D.C. jail supervisor Marshall R. Phillips Sr. and homemaker Sunday Abraham.
Lackluster school board elections are not unique to Washington. A study of 768 school districts by the National School Boards Association found that only 15.5 percent had board elections deemed "very competitive," and 9.9 percent were "not competitive." The rest, about three-fourths, were in between -- "somewhat" or "occasionally" competitive.
But large, struggling urban districts often have more challenges than successful suburban ones when it comes to recruiting strong candidates, some say. In Washington, for example, many of the best potential candidates -- affluent parents with time and money -- have no incentive to run because they have enrolled their children in private schools.
Cafritz, a former activist with significant personal wealth, was elected two years ago and now says the job is more demanding than she imagined. School board members are paid $15,000 a year, with Cafritz receiving an additional $1,000 as president. But Cafritz said she works 60 hours a week on school issues and pays for her own driver and assistant to help with board business.
The job's demands limit "the pool of qualified candidates. It's so expensive to do this job, it's not fair to anyone who thinks that they are qualified but there are all these constrictions," Cafritz said.
In contrast to the school board, D.C. Council members are paid $92,520, and Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) receives $128,200.
Some former board members say that, ideally, they would work on school issues part time, setting the school system's direction and letting the superintendent carry out daily operations. But Erika Landberg, who served eight years on the board, said she was forced to give up her part-time job because the time demands of school-related business were too great.
"It's very tough," she said. "I'm not arguing for board members to be paid a lot more, but the pressures of the job are not commensurate to the salary."
The board's tumultuous recent history has left it struggling to find its footing. In the early 1990s, with D.C. schools in disarray, the school board was increasingly viewed as a dysfunctional body that had trouble getting along, a perception enhanced during a 1990 melee at a public meeting when Landberg was struck with a nameplate.
In November 1996, the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board stripped the school board of most of its power, cut the salaries of its members from $30,000 to $15,000 a year and appointed a trustees board to help oversee the school system.
When the control board gave back power to the school board two years ago, voters agreed to turn the fully elected board into a hybrid, with five elected members and four appointed by the mayor. This new board has continued the bickering of old, a problem some have blamed on Cafritz.
This is especially disappointing now, council members and parents said, as the school board struggles to determine where to make $30 million in spending cuts ordered by the council. Council members and the mayor, seeking savings to close a $323 million city budget deficit, brushed off school board members when they warned of teacher layoffs and school closings.
Some people blame Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's education committee, and his council colleagues for the discord. Chavous and Cafritz sparred over the budget, and Chavous chastised Cafritz at a public meeting when she tried to pass off a question about school spending to a financial officer. This kind of sniping has created a negative political atmosphere that discourages potential school board candidates, some parents said.
"The city council and mayor are the people who destroyed the Board of Education," said Linda Moody, president of the citywide council of PTAs. "They constantly complain about what's not going correctly, and they do not highlight what is going correctly and try to work with the board and superintendent to resolve things."
Chavous said the council has taken a proactive approach toward school reform because the school system is not spending its budget wisely. If anything, Chavous said, "my colleagues are so focused on this, I've had to hold them back. Some of them would like to get more involved."
Lightfoot said he had hoped to change the culture of political bickering by uniting with the mayor. "We've never had the school board president run as a ticket with the mayor, but the mayor didn't want to do it," said Lightfoot, still clearly upset. "Now we're back to the same old same-old, which is what I wanted to avoid."
Williams was not available to comment. His spokesman, Tony Bullock, said that if the mayor had supported one candidate over another, he would have been criticized for attempting to manipulate the election by "stacking the board." Besides, Bullock said, the mayor already appoints four board members.
Still, the political battles have at times created the perception that the school board is impotent. "You see good people on the board not making a difference," said Mary Filardo, a schools activist. "So there may be a reluctance among potential candidates, a feeling of, 'Why should I feel I can do more than they do?' "