Are the problems of the D.C. School Board the problems of an elected school board that should be eliminated or are they the personal problems of some especially bad board members?
The answer is that in its 12 years the District's elected school board has been the butt of jokes and little more, despite changes in its membership. Currently, the member who best personifies the board's problems is Frank Shaffer-Corona, a man regarded by his colleagues as the worst among them.
How Shaffer-Corona got elected illustrates the problems that have plagued the elected board.
Having been fired from his last job, Shaffer-Corona was making a living playing backgammon for money at Columbia Station, an Adams-Morgan bar, when he ran for an at-large seat as the Latino candidate in 1977. At 34, Shaffer-Corona had no experience as an educator, no history of activity in the Washington community, and his own formal education had ended when he dropped out of Howard University after one year.
His opposition for one of the two at-large seats available that year came from three people: Barbara Lett Simmons, a veteran politician running for reelection to the board; Afrodita Constantinidis, a dispatcher for an air freight company and a member of the Socialist Workers Party; and Stuart Rosenblatt, the otherwise unemployed director of the local chapter of the U.S. Labor Party. Constantinidis ran on a platform of financing the schools through the "$100 billion wasted annually by the Pentagon." Rosenblatt's campaign was based on teaching District children more sciences, and getting rid of courses like sociology and political science, if necessary, so students could be prepared for a "nuclear-based economy."
With that opposition, the unknown Shaffer-Corona, running as "Washington's senior elected official" on the basis of one year on the Adams Elementary School community board, became a serious candidate. He was endorsed by the Washington Central Labor Council and the local chapter of Americans for Democratic Action.On Election Day 1977, with less than 10 percent of the registered voters going to the polls, Shaffer-Corona came in second in the at-large race, defeating Rosenblatt by 11,640 votes to 9,252 votes.
"There were a lot of people around who saw a Spanish-looking name and the endorsements and said, 'Why not?" says Silverio Coy, a community activist in Adams-Morgan. Coy and many other Hispanic leaders now denounce Shaffer-Corona as an embarrassment to their community.
Shaffer-Corona has made controversial trips to Cuba (for which he billed the school system), Mexico, El Salvador and, most recently, the Middle East. He has also battled with the board at four meetings held because of him alone over the cost of $700 in phone calls he made to Mexico and Iran at board expense. He claimed to be trying to free the Chicano hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran. He also has been accused of paying for hotels in Mexico and San Francisco with checks that bounced.
Explains Shaffer-Corona: "If some fool pushed a button somewhere, this city will become the biggest manhole in the world. . . . If our kids are dead, our parents are gone, nobody is going to be doing a whole lot of learning."
He regards his major accomplishment as fighting for bilingual education.
"The voters put people like Shaffer-Corona here," says board President R. Calvin Lockridge, who himself was once fired by the school system and was unemployed when he won election to the board. "The voters put John Warren and Barbara Lett Simmons back in office. They knew they were disruptive people. Those people don't respond to Robert's Rules of Order at a meeting. Rules and laws are for civilized people. They don't work with savages. If people are sick and tired of Shaffer-Corona, they should recall him."
The school board's failure to attract quality candidates or to stem erosion of public confidence in the schools is the background for Mayor Barry's push to get rid of the elected school board and replace it with an appointed board or to have the city council and Barry oversee Superintendent Vincent E. Reed.
To get rid of the board, all Barry would have to do is to have his proposal approved by the city council, according to school board counsel James Brown. Barry would then seek congressional approval. If he were to ask for an appointed school board, he would be following a model now in use in Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Norfolk and Richmond. In some of those cities there have been complaints that not every segment of the community is properly represented. But generally the appointed boards have met with approval because of the high caliber of people who agree to serve on them.
"There have been efforts here to start electing the school board," said Mary Brennan, assistant secretary of Chicago's appointed school board, "but everyone fears that an elected board would just be too political. The politics would overrun the schools. Now we've got good people who care about education, people from the PTAs, the business community and the area education councils."
An appointment school board would not be new to the District. The mayor appointed a higher education board here to oversee the three city colleges before they merged into the University of the District of Columbia. Benjamin Henley, who served on that board and is a former superintendent of the District schools, says the board worked without interference from the mayor.
"I don't know if things would change for the better with an appointed school board," says Henley, "but I think they might get a little better. I can see where people might want to do something about the schools."