All 29 candidates in the city's race for five school board seats are convinced that the board's main trouble is its bad image.
They are wrong.
The board's court-jester image is not half so much a problem as the board's failure to overcome the years when Barbara Sizemore was superintendent of schools. The board is still dominated in spirit by members who are fighting Sizemore's early '70s fight to bring the Revolution to the public schools and to denounce traditional academic standards as an attempt by whites to make blacks look dumb.
The board's leading proponent of the Sizemore school of thought has been Barbara Lett-Simmons. She was the educational consultant who recommended Sizemore for the superintendent's job and then won a seat on the board, running as a pro-Sizemore candidate. Even after Sizemore had skewered herself as superintendent by dragging the schools through almost two years of chaos with her open school theories, Lett-Simmons remained on the board as Sizemore's most fierce defender.
And if Sizemore was the right superintendent for the schools, that meant her successor could be nothing but a dupe set up to get rid of Sizemore. Thus, Lett-Simmons was a prime critic of Vincent Reed during his years as superintendent. She became a central force in creating what is the minority faction on the school board. It is a faction that thwarted efforts by the majority to win concessions from teachers on longer working hours in the 1978 teachers' strike, a faction that refuses to close schools despite declining enrollment, a faction that has turned any attempt at a reasonable discussion of the school budget into a good-guy, bad-guy scenario--with itself representing the good guys and Mayor Barry as the bad guy.
This is the same group that led the board to its high standing on the comedy circuit. It includes: Frank Shaffer-Corona (at-large), who appointed himself special emissary to free the American hostages from Iran, often over the phone to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran at school board expense; John Warren (Ward 6), who, principals say, asked that they hang his picture in their schools; and R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), who once had to be pulled away as he was choking Shaffer-Corona during a closed board meeting in which Shaffer-Corona called him a "clown." Lett-Simmons herself--who has publicly called other board members "racist" and asked the men if they were really "man enough" to disagree with her--has done her part to add to the comedy by refusing to vacate the board vice president's office even though she lost that title nine months ago and the board has since voted that she should move out.
The only trouble with identifying these board members as a faction is that they regularly try to upstage one another and, like Shaffer-Corona and Lockridge, can occasionally be found, literally, going for each other's throat. But basically the group believes that the school system is, to quote Shaffer-Corona, "the heart of a racist monster that is destroying black children." To defang the monster, the group invites new ideas on what the schools should be, ideas such as Sizemore's or anyone else's. They want to change the school system and they don't consider a return to the basics a change that neutralizes the "racist monster."
Following that line of thinking, the group, which often includes Bettie Benjamin (Ward 5), simply opposes whatever the majority of the 11- member board is trying to do. It ties the school board in knots on major and minor issues and reduces all debate to personalities and base remarks that fall into the Sizemore category of racist-whites and Tom-blacks versus progressive blacks. For example, attempts by the majority to get beyond approving a back-to-basics curriculum and institute tougher standards in other ways, such as requiring tests of performance for teachers, have been stymied by the minority faction as attacks on black teachers.
The worst characteristic of the faction, however, is that each member is trying to show how powerful he or she is. One or another of them regularly tries to rule the schools and interferes with the superintendent's control. They do this, teachers and principals say, by threatening them with trouble if they should ever seek tenure or advancement to better jobs. By doing so, the board members do in fact run several schools, having created fiefdoms and cliques that work against each other.
The board member who is best at this is Lockridge. With threats and favors to administrators, he has created a personal army in his ward. His people feed him information on teachers and principals for the closed personnel meetings so he can downgrade people who are not on his team and urge that they be replaced by his loyalists.
Lockridge's ability at infighting has served him well on the board itself. It has made him the most powerful board member in the past three years. By siding with the majority of the board often enough to claim that he is a "swing man" between both camps, Lockridge has made himself the deciding vote on issue after issue and built up debts from board members. For example, he wanted to be board president in 1978 but found he did not have the votes. In a sudden switch, he became a prime backer of Minnie Woodson, a gentle but sometimes ineffectual member. With his vote, she won the presidency, and Lockridge became one of her key advisers. During the strike in 1978, he was her key adviser. By the next year, Lockridge had enough votes to win the presidency himself, and even when he left the office, he had enough pull to get an ally, Eugene Kinlow, the chair.
Lockridge's power plays regularly caused him to clash with Vincent Reed when Reed was superintendent. But with Acting Superintendent James Guines, who was eager to become the permanent superintendent, Lockridge's power had no curb. Guines publicly courted Lockridge because of Lockridge's ability to swing key votes, such as the vote on who would be the next superintendent. During Guines' time as acting superintendent, according to several sources, many of the people hired by the school system were from Ward 8 or recommended by Lockridge.
As head of the board's finance committee, Lockridge also prompted Guines to get rid of Edward Winner, head of the school system's budget division, after Winner took a leave of absence to work on the city's financial problems for Mayor Barry, a Lockridge enemy. Winner now works for the mayor full time. Although Lockridge has been seen in shouting matches with the mayor and is clearly not the best board member to deal with Barry on school finances, he has too many markers in hand from other board members to be shifted to another committee assignment.
Lockridge and the other members of the minority faction have been elected because so few people vote in school board elections or know who the candidates are. If this November's election is to improve the school board and the public schools, that minority faction must be defeated.