At a Sept. 25 school board forum at Ward 5’s Michigan Park Christian Church, a member of the audience asked how the candidates aimed to address discipline problems in the D.C. public schools. Larry Gray, a candidate for school board president, rose to address the issue but had trouble connecting with his audience.

It wasn’t that he didn’t speak forcefully enough or that the crowd was getting unruly. The distraction, rather, was coming from one of his opponents, Peggy Cooper Cafritz. To be more precise, the trouble was Cafritz’s hard-soled black shoe, which she persisted in tapping loudly on the meeting-room floor. Before Gray could finish his well-reasoned two-minute reply, Cafritz had tapped her shoe 29 times, as counted by LL’s UL-certified tap-meter.

Accounts of Cafritz’s unease at issue forums will resonate with anyone who has followed the school board president candidates on this fall’s campaign trail. In her debates against longtime schools activist Gray and current board President the Rev. Robert Childs, Cafritz has profiled as a hypercaffeinated know-it-all. She fidgets while others are speaking, she speaks out of turn, and she smirks. It’s as if she watched Al Gore in his first presidential debate and declared, “That’s how I want to come off.”

The candidate’s quirks feed into concerns that she is too much a maverick to unite the city behind the imperative of improving its schools. Voters describe her as imperious, divisive, and all too ready to shove her ideas down the throats of her opponents.

“She might have a personality that might not appeal to the general masses,” acknowledges Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a Cafritz supporter and Ward 8 land-use activist.

Well, then, here’s a message for the general masses: Get over it.

Cafritz is not running for coffeehouse companion. She’s running to reform the city’s public-school system, a bureaucratic boneyard overstuffed with cronies from the D.C. Democratic establishment throughout 26 years of home rule. With shoddy oversight from an incompetent school board and ever-declining parental involvement, the schools today are so bad that only 50 percent of incoming freshmen graduate. Average SAT scores for D.C. public-school students are 813 for math and verbal combined, leagues away from the national average of 1,016. Nearly all school board candidates this year start their speeches by acknowledging the “crisis” in the schools.

It may take a person with a prickly disposition to end that crisis. After all, Cafritz used this very same personality in founding the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, one of the few jewels in the D.C. system. According to Cafritz, the school ranks fourth among the 18 D.C. high schools in academic achievement. “The scores go up every year,” says the candidate.

In her campaign outings, Cafritz evinces the decisiveness of someone who can’t stand being part of a failing enterprise. She refuses to pussyfoot around delicate issues, even when that means offending powerful interests. At a Ward 7 forum, for instance, she stated that 20 percent of D.C. teachers don’t know their subject matter well enough to teach it—a problem that she said justified teacher testing. “Too many students are not performing well, and all of it cannot be blamed on crack babies,” said Cafritz.

So long to the endorsement of the Washington Teachers Union, which is backing Childs. “I am an extremely pro-union person, except when it’s at the expense of our children,” Cafritz said in a campaign speech.

When asked at a meeting of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club whether she supported a charter school for gays, Cafritz spat at the notion, arguing that special schools undermine the goal of “overall tolerance” in the system.

And Cafritz is the only candidate to occasionally evince an all-but-extinct attribute in D.C. politics: original thinking. At one forum, the candidate was asked how she’d resolve the breakdown in transportation for the school system’s special education students. Cafritz proposed contracting the service to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “You don’t reinvent the wheel,” said Cafritz.

Here’s what Childs had to say on the same subject: “You have to get all the parties involved and continue to talk to each other.” Plain English translation: “Blah, blah, blah.”

Childs’ prescription for special education transportation captures just how we got where we are. It’s not enough to merely gather all interested parties at the table and talk things out. You have to do something. Childs majors in the former and has little record in the latter.

The senior pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Brightwood Park, Childs ascended to the school board as an at-large member in November 1996, just moments before the D.C. financial control board announced that it was stripping the board of nearly all its powers. The coup d’école gave Childs and other board incumbents an alibi for their four years in quasi-power: Because they have had no authority, they allege, it’s unfair to judge their tenure.

Perhaps. But Childs’ performance furnishes persuasive reasons to pass him up on the Nov. 7 ballot. According to school board attendance records, Childs missed 11 of 87 school board sessions over the past four years. Several of his colleagues, however, contend that the records don’t reflect the extent of his truancy. Childs frequently popped into meetings just long enough to be marked present and then bolted, according to other board members.

“When he was not in the leadership, he wasn’t there very much,” says at-large member Tonya Vidal Kinlow, who is married to Eugene Dewitt Kinlow and says she is undecided on the school- board-president race.

Not true, responds Childs. “Look at the Channel 28 recordings. You’ll see me there for the whole meetings.”

Nor has Childs taken ownership of any pressing issue confronting public schools in the city, such as special education, facilities management, or student testing. Instead, he has stayed outside the fray, avoiding tough positions and playing both sides against the middle. His failure to engage, ironically, made him a natural choice for president this year: The board had split into two factions, both of which found Childs sufficiently neutral to tap for a leadership position. (Prior to the June 2000 referendum, board members each year elected their own president.)

In the 2000 campaign, Childs has frequently opened his near-empty box of educational ideas, always with underwhelming results. When asked about the role of board president, Childs repeats the standard bureaucratic cant: “To use the resources available, to have meetings that are run professionally, and to coordinate policy, not the day-to-day” business. On classroom instruction: “We need qualified, certified teachers in the classroom.”

It never gets much better than that. Platitudes, in fact, amount to a campaign strategy of sorts for Childs. By advocating milquetoast positions with his preacherlike delivery, Childs sells himself as a unifier, a bridge-builder out to heal a board plagued in the past by bickering and racial division.

Don’t buy any of it. Even a unifier must possess passion and convictions about how children should be educated. Childs has shown neither.

Instead, his quest for harmony can veer into fits of political cowardice, like his appearance before the Gertrude Stein group. When pressed on his agenda for gay and lesbian students, Childs could barely bring himself to utter the word. “He never once said ‘gay,’” says Phil Pannell, a Stein club member and Cafritz campaign co-chair.

So if you can’t stomach a vote for Cafritz, cast your lot with Gray, a pleasant gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of school matters. Although Gray lacks the stature of a school board president, his experience working with students and the Congress of PTAs makes him a far better choice than Childs.

But if you’re tired of a school board that endorses the status quo and fusses over office perquisites, go for a woman who, in her own words, doesn’t “have the patience to sit around and worry about parking spaces.”

Vote Cafritz, with authority.

SCHOOL BOARD RACES

District 1

Lenwood Johnson, LL’s sentimental favorite, is winning the contest for starch content. Johnson’s shirts are so white and stiff that fellow politicians are hesitant to slap him on the back. LL shies from approaching the friendly candidate for fear of spilling something on one of his legendary oxfords.

Appearances aside, neither Johnson nor Harvey Jones nor Linda Softli nor three other contenders in the race can match upstart Julie Mikuta. A Rhodes scholar and director of curriculum at D.C.’s SEED Public Charter School, Mikuta has blown away the field with her preparation for candidates forums and impressive presentations on topics ranging from abuse of gay and lesbian students to facilities problems.

Vote Mikuta, in good conscience.

District 2

At a Halloween candidates forum in Ward 4, incumbent Dwight Singleton said this: “Unlike one of my opponents, it didn’t take me nine years to get through college.” The slight was unprompted and reflected Singleton’s self-aggrandizing churlishness, a trait he has aimed at school board colleagues. District 2 voters, however, have a few solid alternatives: Hugh Allen is an earnest, experienced parent activist who has secured the endorsement of education-obsessed Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. Martin Levine is an industrious candidate with a coherent message. But Tommy Duren has the crowd beat on message and energy. The CEO of a D.C. communications firm, Duren has a solid record of educational causes and speaks with authority on the system’s condition.

Vote Duren, like you mean it.

District 3

LL is no historian, but he’d bet that no school board candidate in 30 years has wanted to serve as badly as Tommy Wells. A Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner, Wells announced his school board campaign in the summer of 1999 and has raised more than $20,000 for his effort. His desire to serve comes on top of an unparalleled record on behalf of underprivileged children in the District. As director of the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare, Wells has helped create child-support collaboratives in eight city neighborhoods and created a foster-care program for children with HIV/AIDS. LL regrets only that a school board seat may not wield a level of power commensurate with Wells’ qualifications.

If for some reason you can’t abide voting for a candidate who represents disadvantaged kids, please do not vote for Benjamin Bonham, who is running against Wells and six others. By far the worst member of the current board, Bonham placed a campaign poster on Pennsylvania Avenue that reads, “#1 on the ballet.”

Vote Wells, without blinking.

District 4

On Primary Day, Sept. 12, school board candidate Cardell Shelton swept through Ward 8 polling places campaigning for himself and for failed council candidate Sandra Seegars. “People ’round here,” screamed Shelton, “are some of the most prayingest people in the world, and they think that some white man named Jesus Christ died thousands of years ago and now he’s going to resurrect himself and save me.”

So how does that relate to the school board race, you might ask? Here’s how: Shelton’s digressions on religion and race are better confined to the street corner and not to school board deliberations, where it’s best to stick to education.

LL can’t speak intelligently on the qualifications of candidate Arthur Wharton, who was not present at the District 4 forum LL attended.

No matter: Incumbent William Lockridge is a hardworking, smart candidate who has made the most of his time on the current board.

Vote Lockridge, and don’t look back.

COUNCIL RACES

At Large

The field of six in this race is headed by incumbents Carol Schwartz and Harold Brazil and includes four other challengers. Voters may choose two candidates but are entitled to exercise a “bullet” vote for just one.

It’s regrettable, however, that the ballot won’t allow voters to make a bullet vote against a candidate, which would be a great way to get Brazil out of office. As documented in this space and elsewhere, Brazil is among the council’s least thoughtful and most ineffective legislators.

Schwartz, a Republican, is another matter. Having lost from their ranks the likes of Hilda Mason, Harry Thomas, and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., city politics are now running a personality deficit, and Schwartz stands as one of the few remaining bulwarks against the further dulling of the local scene. She wears flamboyant outfits, speaks her mind at council meetings, and has a personal touch even with large crowds. On the oversight front, she routinely hounds underachievers at the Department of Public Works and showed the good sense to hire council veteran Adam Maier to run her Public Works Committee.

Give your other at-large vote to Arturo Griffiths, the Statehood Green Party candidate who would bring a much-needed voice for Latinos and the underprivileged to the council.

Vote Schwartz and Griffiths, period.

Ward 2

Statehood Green Party candidate Tom Briggs spent too much time griping about his bind with the federal Hatch Act and not enough addressing Ward 2 issues. Briggs is a D.C. public-school teacher and received notice from the feds that the act disqualifies him from D.C. political office—an injustice that

Briggs has tried to play for political benefit. He may well have a point, but it hardly amounts to a reason to oust hardworking incumbent Jack Evans from office.

Vote Evans, and move on.

Ward 4

Democratic nominee Adrian Fenty beat 20-year vet Charlene Drew Jarvis by going door to door, not by mastering the fine points of municipal management. Fenty’s weakness on the issues has surfaced in his debates with Renee Bowser, a smart Statehood Green hopeful who has a much more cohesive platform than Fenty’s. In September, however, Ward 4’s voters signaled that they want a candidate who can deliver constituent services. And after spending a summer knocking on doors throughout the ward, Fenty knows that game better than anyone.

Vote Fenty, all day long.

Ward 7

Democratic incumbent Kevin Chavous is running against Republican Johnnie Scott Rice in a contest that does more to promote voter apathy than any force since the control board.

Vote Andrew Brimmer, with arrogance.

Ward 8

Incumbent Sandy Allen is facing a tough write-in challenge from failed Democratic primary candidate Seegars, who is reportedly launching a new force in D.C. politics called the Sore Loser Party.

Vote Allen.

OTHER RACES

Congressional Delegate

Incumbent Eleanor Holmes Norton will have to start making some mistakes before the city can begin considering an alternative to her tireless advocacy of D.C. interests in the House.

Vote Norton, with force.

Shadow Seats

Florence Pendleton is running uncontested for the shadow U.S. senator seat, and Ray Browne has outcampaigned his rivals for the shadow rep seat. CP

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