Given the field of shabby candidates for school board this year, voters might want to try the Wheel of Fortune approach to ballot-punching. Think of yourself as a contestant on Pat Sajak’s timeless game show, the poll sitter as Vanna White. Now close your eyes and give the ballot needle a whirl.

Or maybe not. Despite the poorly qualified contenders, control board Chairman Alice Rivlin has already returned some of the board’s lost powers and plans a full restoration by June 2000—a prospect that warrants a survey to determine which candidates will inflict the least damage on city schools. At-large candidate and Statehood Party activist Gail Dixon gets the nod here, largely by default. Dixon can at least point to constructive involvement with public schools, a working knowledge of the issues, and some appreciation of the difficulties facing Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in her quest to right a wrecked public school system.

Dixon’s history sets her apart from her rivals, particularly Bob Artisst, Mary E. Cox, and George Pope, who are running to further their own political agendas or to pursue vendettas against the superintendent. Unlike those three, Dixon shows a willingness to compromise and to rule by consensus, a spirit that eluded past school boards, which were thus condemned to irrelevance.

Dixon also displays a toughness that separates her from newcomers Gerry Counihan and Darryl Ross, who are earnest and hard-working but would need lots of on-the-job training. Under an agreement with Rivlin, the next school board will deliberate on disciplinary, maintenance, and facilities-planning issues—a docket that leaves no room for OJT.

LL can only hope that Dixon, an events coordinator and professional singer, remembers that she is being sent to the board to give the community a reasoned and effective voice, and not to micromanage Ackerman and usurp her authority as superintendent.

In the Ward 2 race for an open school board seat, the Washington Post stunned the city’s education leaders by endorsing Georgetown’s confrontational community activist Westy Byrd. Post editorial writers seemed impressed by her credentials as “a public school parent.” From their 15th Street ivory tower, though, the city’s self-appointed electoral college apparently failed to notice that Byrd’s daughter has attended D.C. public schools for only the past 60 days, having switched just in time to launch her mom’s political career.

Byrd says her decision to take her daughter out of private school resulted from her changing economic circumstances following a divorce, and not from her political aspirations. Her son still attends private school, and Byrd herself is a product of private schooling.

Ward 2 voters suspect that Byrd wants to use a school board seat to the same ends as other D.C. pols: as a steppingstone to the D.C. Council. Although Byrd denies a hankering to challenge Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans in two years, she can’t help but notice the candidate’s vulnerability. Evans, who mustered only 10 percent of the vote in last month’s Democratic mayoral primary, got clobbered in his ward and home precinct by Anthony Williams.

Byrd’s political past is spiced with confrontation and divisiveness—not sterling credentials for an elected body that needs to heal its divisions and learn how to work together for a change. She led the successful effort early this decade to block Georgetown University from building a huge commercial power plant in the midst of its pristine community.

Since then, she has seized every opportunity to oppose the university. Let’s not forget that Byrd made like George Wallace, grandstanding in front of a precinct doorway two years ago in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Georgetown University students from participating in local elections. Byrd defends her activist credentials, saying, “I have a record of getting things done.”

Her candidacy has roused some Georgetown residents and Evans backers to rally around rival candidates in hopes of stopping Byrd’s ascendancy. Malcolm Lovell, perhaps the most qualified candidate in the running, has snared the endorsement of the Current newspapers and a smattering of Georgetown merchants.

Lovell, a former labor official under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, is picking up voter support by pledging to focus on reducing dropout rates and increasing math and reading test scores. He also promises to use his ample skills and experience as a labor-management negotiator to bring much-needed peace to the school board. But the 77-year-old Lovell, a close friend of control board Vice Chair Constance Newman, has come across during candidate forums as tired and unfamiliar with local education issues.

LL’s choice is Southwest advisory neighborhood commission Chairman George Holmes, despite that ridiculous, rambling poem, The Bridge Builder, he insists on reciting on the campaign trail. “There followeth after me today/A youth whose feet must pass this way/Good friend, I’m building this bridge for him,” reads an excerpt. Holmes’ campaign appearances, which combine Baptist preaching with bad performance art, belie his considerable skills as a coalition builder and community liaison.

When he became chair of ANC 2D last year, Holmes fulfilled his vow to increase attendance at monthly meetings—by serving free pizza and handing out discount coupons. For instance, anyone who attends an ANC meeting nowadays will get a free month’s membership at Gold’s Gym. His Barnum & Bailey-style tactics have increased community participation tenfold, from 12 to as many as 120 at recent ANC meetings.

“There’s more to George than you think,” notes an ANC colleague. “He has an ability to connect with people and work things out. And he knows when to stop pushing on an issue.”

Holmes also works as a special ed teacher in the D.C. public schools, a post he’d have to abandon if elected to the board.

Ward 4 voters will have to rely heavily on LL’s least-damage litmus test when choosing their next school board representative. Current board Vice Chair Sandra Butler-Truesdale has already done much harm—contributing mightily to the paralysis that led to the 1996 control board takeover—and should be barred from swinging her wrecking ball for another four years.

Dwight Singleton, the Post’s choice in the Ward 4 race, is the most politically ambitious. He got involved in local school issues only after failing to unseat Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis in 1996 and seems eager for a rematch with Jarvis, or her anointed successor, in two years.

In handing out its Oct. 13 endorsement of Singleton, the Post cited his involvement as a parent, PTA president, mentor, and volunteer math instructor. But Singleton, at a recent candidates forum and in a phone interview with LL last week, couldn’t remember the age of his only child.

“If he’s not committed enough to know his own son’s age, he’s not committed to our children,” observes a Ward 4 voter.

LL suspects he’ll be committed enough to keep his seat warm until a council seat opens up.

That leaves Tommy Duren, a professional-puppeteer-turned-political-consultant, and John Howard, a former D.C. schoolteacher now practicing criminal defense law, as the only viable contenders. Duren, 31, first gained attention last year as a leader of the Eddie Bauer boycott over allegations of discrimination against African-American shoppers.

At least he disavows the practice of using the school board as a launching pad for a council seat, pledging to serve out his full term if elected. “It’s going to take more than two years to get out of this rut,” he notes.

Howard, 54, touts his credentials as a former teacher and librarian, and seems to best understand the board member’s role of working with the superintendent rather than questioning her every move. But some voters find it difficult to take Howard seriously after reading his literature, which lists among his honors the “Smooth & EZ Hand Dance Institute and Solar Eclipse Certificate of Achievement,” and the “Healthy Aging Award.”

Puppeteer or hand dancer—take your pick.

In Ward 7, longtime advisory neighborhood commissioner Herbert Boyd Jr., the son of a highly regarded D.C. principal, has demonstrated a commitment and ability to work with the community. Boyd jumped into the race after being laid off by Ackerman in her shakeup of the schools’ troubled special education office in July—a turn of events that he insists played no part in his decision to run for school board.

The other serious contender is community activist Sam Bost, who helped evaluate Houston Elementary School and Woodson Senior High School as part of a group of education activists. But Bost also has a reputation for letting crucial details slip through the cracks. His attempt to recall retiring Ward 7 school board member Terry Hairston fizzled after the van in which Bost said he had left the signed recall petitions was stolen.

LL gives a slight edge to Boyd for his past community endeavors and auto-theft prevention record.

In Ward 8, former school teacher Jeff Canady possesses the experience and energy to put him head and shoulders above perennial contender William Lockridge. Canady, a former D.C. public school teacher with expertise in early childhood education, narrowly missed getting appointed to the emergency board of trustees set up two years ago to supplant the elected school board.

He belongs on the elected school board. The Post agrees, having endorsed Canady two weeks ago.

The Post can’t be wrong all the time.

WILLIAMS, MENDELSON, AND CATANIA

GOP mayoral contender Carol Schwartz acts as if she’s auditioning for a remake of the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond. Since nearly everyone loves Carol, including mayor-in-waiting Anthony Williams, and since she has touched more D.C. voters than Williams and has been here longer, she concludes that it is “my turn” to be mayor.

She dismisses current voter concern that the next mayor must be a skilled manager. “I can hire a good city manager,” she says with a flick of her hand and the characteristic toss of her head.

But Schwartz just doesn’t get it. Even if everyone loves her, she still represents a link to the failed past, when charisma and place-holding counted for more in local government than management skills and political courage. Like Williams’ vanquished Democratic primary opponents, Schwartz hammers away at him for abruptly firing a couple of hundred city employees who could not do their jobs.

In the next breath she boasts that she would also fire employees for incompetence, but in a much more humane fashion that guaranteed them “due process” and took into account that those being fired largely would be African-American women and single heads of households.

“Due process” has become code that translates into “lifetime employment for everyone.” Just ask former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. She rode into office eight years ago on a promise to fire 2,000 managers but then lost her nerve and failed to shrink the city’s bloated government workforce.

Voters want a new start. That was obvious in last week’s tribute to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. at the MCI Center, where some 8,300 Barry well-wishers brought down the curtain on the last 20 years in D.C. government. Sitting directly behind Barry was Williams, waiting to step forward and usher in a new era.

That new era will begin on Tuesday. Vote Williams.

And vote Phil Mendelson and David Catania for the two at-large council seats. Mendelson, a well-regarded former council staffer, combines community activism with a zeal for D.C. tax and regulatory reform that will benefit the business community. He is not anti-business but does oppose the business community’s pet project of cramming a new convention center into Mount Vernon Square.

Republican Catania is becoming the role model for the next generation of councilmembers who don’t just preach oversight but aggressively pursue it. He grills government officials at council hearings and then shows up at their doorsteps a few days later, unannounced, to check up on their claims.

For those of you who can’t stomach the party of Lauch Faircloth, Charles Taylor, and Newt Gingrich, cast your lot with independent candidate Sandra Seegars. In recent years, Seegars has operated in the capacity of volunteer councilmember, stomping out voter fraud and corruption by D.C. officials. She also collected tens of thousands of signatures to recall Hizzoner, in an initiative that underscored her political courage and energy.

Whatever you do, ignore the Post’s endorsement of no-name at-large candidate Beverly Wilbourn. Sure, the Ward 4 attorney speaks competently on economic development and other pressing topics. But she’s been about as active in local politics as washed-up actor Louis Gossett Jr., who somehow ended up co-hosting last week’s Barry tribute.

At the root of the Post’s pro-Wilbourn tract, of course, is a force that blinds the afflicted from evaluating political talent: racial guilt. Cognizant that the council’s black majority is in peril, the Post would have done anything to avoid endorsing two white candidates in the race, including hitching its wagon to perennial contender Don Folden if he had been available. A city with a legendary shortage of qualified leaders can ill afford to base its choices on racial quotas. CP

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