In the second Board of Education contest since voters reduced the number of elected representatives on the board, few challengers are seeking the job.
School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz faces no competition to lead the governing body of the 67,500-student system. Board member William Lockridge, who represents District 4, which includes Wards 7 and 8, also faces no challenger.
Only one of the three seats on Tuesday's ballot has a competitive race: District 3, which includes Wards 5 and 6. Incumbent Tommy Wells is facing three challengers, including Ben Bonham, a former member of the school board.
More than two years ago, voters reduced the size of the school board to nine and allowed the mayor to appoint four members. Normally, members serve four-year terms. But to prevent wholesale turnover in one year, the terms were staggered. To accomplish that, some members initially are serving for two years.
The board that took over in January 2001 regained power from the D.C. financial control board, which had stripped most of the school board's responsibilities. The current school board, whose members are paid $15,000 a year and whose president receives $16,000 annually, are part time and supposed to focus on policy while leaving management to the superintendent.
The school system faces several problems that have persisted for years, including low standardized test scores, crumbling buildings and financial systems that fail to pay employees on time.
In District 3, Wells's challengers are Bonham, a real estate agent; Marshall R. Phillips Sr., who retired on disability from the D.C. jail as a supervisor; and Sunday Abraham, a perennial candidate and homemaker.
Wells, elected for a term that began in 2001, said he wants to continue efforts to improve the school system, particularly special education, and co-chairs a committee that deals with the issue. The special education system has long been troubled and failed to provide required services to many children. Parents continue to complain that children are not receiving required transportation and educational services.
"The reforms that we've begun in special education will provide better education for children with special needs and free up more money for the school system," said Wells, who heads the Consortium for Child Welfare, an umbrella agency for nonprofit groups providing foster care, adoption and child protective services.
Wells said he initiated an effort to set a deadline for students to receive required immunizations. The regulation had been on the books for many years but not enforced by the school system.
Midway through last school year, the board voted to enforce the regulations and would not allow students without immunizations to attend class. At the start of this academic year, students without records showing that they had received required shots were not admitted.
Wells said he wants to ensure that children have vision and hearing screenings before attending class. He also said he wants to find ways to preserve and improve smaller schools and rethink how to improve junior high schools.
Bonham, who represented Ward 6 on the school board, said he entered the race after concluding that he had "a large constituency pushing for me to run." He has three children in D.C. public schools -- a son, 15, and daughters, 6 and 10 -- and said that has given him a firsthand view of problems that must be fixed.
Bonham, who served on the board from 1997 through 2000, said he wanted to rejoin the board to improve special education and transportation. He said he wanted to encourage health care professionals to create new special education programs in the city. He said he did not have specific policy ideas.
"The whole culture of our special ed program needs to be redone," Bonham said. "Our transportation system needs to be reworked."
Bonham also said individual schools are not receiving enough funding and called for changing the formula used to determine how much money each school receives. His background in accounting gives him needed skills to determine whether money must be shifted from one part of the budget to another, he said.
Wells "is still learning a lot about a lot of things . . . I can hit the ground running having knowing a lot of the insides," Bonham said. Wells disputed that and criticized the previous board for failing to enforce rules and hold the school system accountable.
By the time he left office, Bonham had not provided receipts to the city's chief financial officer accounting for how he spent travel advances for board trips. Although Bonham insisted in an interview that he had turned over the records, he has not provided documentation for how he spent $1,237 in taxpayer funds, according to Eric Balliet, a spokesman for the CFO.
Officials have said Bonham must reimburse the city but has not.
Phillips, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said he decided to run because of concerns about continuing school problems. He said his son, 14, had been in D.C. public schools for many years and suffered with poor teachers and lack of supplies. His son now attends a public charter school.
Phillips said the school system must improve special education and ensure that those students are evaluated within required time periods, a longtime failing of the school system.
More must be done, he said, to reduce the dropout rate and create more vocational education programs. He said the current board has failed to address many pressing issues.
"The only thing I see them doing is talking about problems they are not solving," Phillips said.
He said Wells is "out of touch" and "doesn't have the feel of the people he represents." Wells disputed that, saying he regularly visits schools in his district and meets with parents.
Abraham said she is running to raise issues and awareness. She has waged unsuccessful campaigns for the Prince George's County Council, Prince George's school board and D.C. school board.
The former teacher said her biggest concern is "where the money is going." She said she pays close attention to her personal finances and would do the same on the board.
"I bet you I have one of the lowest electric bills in the city . . . because I watch where the pennies go," Abraham said. "I do most of my own repair work, which is another thing that our schools do not teach our children to be competent in."
Abraham said she wants to institute a language immersion program in D.C. schools. She is also concerned about "the agenda for gay rights."
"We have children in schools to learn the three Rs," Abraham said. "I do not appreciate them pushing for the use of condoms. We are not sending our kids to school for an alternative lifestyle."