What does a school board member do?
On one recent day, R. Calvin Lockridge, the president of the school board came into his office in the afternoon; Barbara Lett Simmons, the vice president, was in Philadelphia, three days after returning from a week-long conference in San Francisco that most board members had attended; Frank Shaffer-Corona was at home "talking to people" after returning from several weeks in the Middle East as a guest of the Plo; Carol Schwartz was at home with her children, still angry because she feels she did not win the presidency of the board only because she is white; Bette Benjamin was out of her office, still stung by the last-minute politics that denied her, too, the presidency of the board; John Warren, Eugene Kinlow and Nathaniel Bush were at other jobs; Alaire Rieffel was at home and so was Linda Cropp.
"Usually you know where they are when they call in to have a car sent to take them around," said one board secretary. "We get a couple calls like that every day."
Although there is no requirement that school board members not have other jobs, only three do. Individual board members are paid more than $18,000 a year to sit on the board and the president, $21,000. The board staff costs the school system $929,000 a year.
Conversations with board members suggest that on most days they are involved in non-stop arguements with each other, hearing complaints about the superintendent and principals from teachers, hearing complaints from parents, seeing people who want to sell something and attending ceremonies and city meetings.
Patricia E. Miner, the former school board executive secretary, quit her $40,000-a-year job in April after six months -- even though the board had no complaint with her. "I told them I couldn't take it anymore," she says. "I wrote a letter telling them I couldn't cope with their bad-mouthing and power trips. I said there was too much vituperation. That sent them to their dictionaries. . . . But really, they never get anything done."
The purpose of any school board is to set the policies and priorities for a school system. These are to be put into effect by the school administration headed by the superintendent. But in the last 10 years the District school board has put policy-making in a back seat. In the late '60s (the board was chartered in 1968) and early '70s, it couldn't find a superintendent it liked. Then it was caught up in the black culture revolution with Barbara Sizemore as superintendent.
Meanwhile, the teachers' union grew stronger, and with that strength came strikes, strike threats and the first D.C. teachers' contract. There were power plays for the presidency of the board. While the in-fighting blossomed, the schools wilted. Test scores dropped, good students left for parochial or private schools and other families went to the suburbs to move away from the horror stories in the schools.
In their defense, school board members list these accomplishments: handling a teachers' strike, instituting a compentency-based curriculum and haltiing social promotions. Only board member Schwartz mentioned keeping Vincent Reed as superintendent during the past five years as an accomplishment.
Reed is not popular with the board. He was reappointed (until 1982) only because members thought he was politically untouchable due to his public reputation as the "one good thing" in the school system.
"How can Vincent Reed be such a good superintendent," asks board President Lockridge, "if the schools are so bad?"
Says Reed: "They say I'm not imaginative. Imaginative. What's that? Look at the results. Last year test scores went up for the first time."
Reed says several members want to run the day-to-day operations of the school system. "I won't let them do what they want to do. I tell them if they can get six votes they can have my job. . . . I'm not selling our 106,000 kids to please them."
To diminish Reed's power, Lockridge plans to appoint a second superintendent equal in stature to Reed who would be in charge of state programs, such as federal grants and special education for handicapped children.
But while the board plots to do in Reed, he is being courted by the mayor. The mayor includes Reed in his cabinet meetings and, while criticizing the school board, is quick to point out that he and "Vince" get along well.
Reed is not sure what it would be like to answer to one boss, the mayor, instead of 11, the school board. He can play politics with 11 people. But he also admits to frustration with the board. He would like to hire and fire principals, for example, but the board does not let him do it.
"The board's power comes from being able to do things for teachers and principals," says a member of Reed's administration. "They don't want to share that power with the superintendent. After they do a favor for a teacher, that teacher will be at the polls Election Day working to get that board member reelected. The superintendent can't do that for them."
The superintendent and baord recently fought heatedly over the board's decision to refuse leave to one of Reed's top assistants, Ed Winner ,the schools' respected budget officer, who proposed to work for the city government. Board member John Warren says Winner was going to work for a man who hates the board. Other board members say race was also involved. Winner is white. There is also the vengeance the board can take against Reed by hurting one of his top aides.
A clear majority on the school board could gave the superintendent an idea of what the board wants. The superintendent could then make proposals knowing that he would have a base of support. Now, for a new idea, such as establishing an academic high school, Reed has had to go out on a limb and count on public sentiment to force board members to give his idea any support.
The board had a majority when Barbara Sizemore was superintendent. But that majority with that superintendent failed miserably. A second majority of back-to-basics proponents, who also felt the teachers' union was too strong, engaged the union in a strike last year. Now no majority exists. And the mayor is suggesting that he and Vincent Reed are a team that could make the schools do better what they are supposed to do: teach children.