Standing in the cavernous lobby of Ward 8’s new Rocketship Rise Academy charter school, Jacque Patterson has a lot on his mind. The head of District operations for the California-based high-tech charter chain, Patterson is charged with launching the school in just a few weeks.
But he has more than that to think about. In November, he’ll face nine-year incumbent Mary Lord and potentially two other candidates for an at-large, citywide spot on the District’s State Board of Education. And Patterson, who lost a bruising 2012 D.C. Council run against Marion Barry, isn’t afraid to take on this incumbent either.
“I don’t think she understands the urgency of urban education,” he says of Lord.
Conventional wisdom among the city’s political class suggests that the State Board of Education, left virtually toothless after the 2007 mayoral takeover of schools, isn’t worth much. But contrary to such chatter, this might be the rare SBOE race that actually matters. With the Democratic D.C. Council candidates guaranteed to win their seats and Independent David Grosso facing only token opposition to his own at-large re-election campaign, Patterson’s run against Lord will be the race to watch on November’s ballot.
Created in the aftermath of then-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s 2007 takeover of D.C. Public Schools, SBOE replaced the old Board of Education, which had significantly more power over the District’s public schools. But Lord, who took office shortly after mayoral control of the schools began, disputes the idea that the board doesn’t wield influence beyond its ability to affect curriculum requirements.
In a typically wonky analogy, Lord compares the current incarnation of the board to the NCAA setting the rules for college athletics.
“We don’t get credit for the Ws and Ls on the scoreboard, but we make the rules of the game,” Lord says, presumably of “wins” and “losses.”
Maybe all that Lord and Patterson can agree on is that the SBOE doesn’t have to be powerless. Patterson wants to take on a more activist role on the body, using his voter base to cudgel councilmembers into action on schools. (Whether that will actually work at city hall, of course, remains to be seen).
“It’s like saying ‘The Pentagon has power, the State Department has no power,’” Lord says, refuting criticism of the body as virtually pointless. “They just have different powers.”
In any case, Patterson wants in. He’s hired District Political, the firm behind David Garber’s losing at-large D.C. Council bid and the aborted at-large campaign of Jimmy Calomiris, who backed out of the race after LL reported on his past assault conviction and cocaine use.
Patterson is pulling in huge money for what is typically a little-watched race, having already raised more than $32,000. Lord, on the other hand, had raised a comparatively puny $5,000 as of Aug. 10.
“I was pretty blown away by the initial filings,” Lord says. “I’m no politician, right?”
Patterson has won the support of Brookings Institution budget wonk and former D.C. Financial Control Board member Alice Rivlin, who gave the maximum $500 contribution to his campaign.
“She’s not just giving because I’m a smiling face,” Patterson says.
Facing the fight of her not-so-political career, Lord is happy to throw some elbows. “What I’m not for is somebody who’s got a whole lot of walking-around money pretending to be this champion of children when his day job is peddling influence,” Lord says.
She suggests that Patterson’s position at the Rocketship school could create conflicts of interest and “influence peddling 101,” though SBOE doesn’t have control over charters. Lord compares Patterson’s job at the school and would-be role on the board to Vincent Orange, who resigned from the Council under pressure Monday after trying to hold both his legislative seat and the top job at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
“If you like what Orange pulled on the Council, you’ll love this one,” she says.
She says Patterson is just running to set himself up for a future D.C. Council run. (Not a bad move, after former SBOE member Trayon White’s successful June primary race for the Ward 8 Council seat.)
Patterson has his own criticisms of the incumbent, complaining that Lord, who lives in Ward 1, is ignoring struggling schools east of the Anacostia River.
“I don’t think that she goes into those types of communities,” Patterson says.
After countless visits to the homes of potential Rocketship students, Patterson is well-positioned to say he can do the job better.
Lord counters that she has a recent receipt from Congress Heights landmark restaurant Player’s Lounge that proves otherwise. And anyway, she says if Patterson wants to help areas east of the river so much, maybe he should run for a board seat there instead of citywide.
“I won’t even entertain the possibility that this guy will get elected.”
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