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In the pre-control board era, the District constructed various monuments to the sort of waste and dysfunction that brought on a congressional putsch. There was the bloated Department of Public Works, which couldn’t recycle or tow away abandoned vehicles. There was the medical examiner’s office, where bodies rotted in un-air-conditioned rooms for weeks.

And then there was the D.C. Board of Education, which seemed incapable of such basic actions as fixing leaky school roofs and replacing broken windows.

At every meeting, the 11 members of the school board found something new over which to divide themselves. If you said something nice about Ward 3 schools, you were an elitist. And if you didn’t agree that Ward 7 and 8 schools were getting shortchanged, you were a racist.

Elected school board members publicly hurled insults at one another and looked for their colleagues’ “hidden agenda” on every vote. Public meetings erupted into shouting matches, with unruly audience members cursing and hurling objects, like water pitchers, at their most despised board members.

The more weak-kneed board members—like Ward 4 incumbent Sandra Butler-Truesdale, currently seeking re-election to a third term—quickly reversed fields when confronted by critics opposing privatization of schools and pushing an Afro-centric curriculum. Others, like current D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, used their school board seats as steppingstones to higher office.

That trend continues. Current board members Don Reeves in Ward 3, Ben Bonham in Ward 6, Terry Hairston in Ward 7, and Linda Moody in Ward 8 tried but failed in the last two council elections to follow in Cropp’s footsteps.

And some members—Ward 7’s Hairston is the most notorious example—used their posts to reward friends and political allies. Hairston helped Jeffrey Robinson land a lucrative contract to set up a school for students with special needs, even though his friend claimed a dubious qualification for the post: He himself was the product of a special ed school.

Robinson, a leader of the 1994 draft movement that brought Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. back to the throne, recognized his shortcomings. Instead of squandering the $500,000 contract on half-baked teaching theories, Robinson chose to blow huge sums on parties at the posh Four Seasons Hotel, dinners at D.C.’s finest restaurants, and other luxuries for himself.

The 1995 contract eventually landed him in jail, following prosecution for fraud by the U.S. Attorney’s office. The fiasco also forced Hairston to plan his retirement for the end of this year rather than seek re-election to a second term. Ward 8’s Moody and Ward 2’s Ann Wilcox, another first-termer, have also chosen to step down rather than put their lackluster records before the voters.

After watching the school board’s shenanigans for more than a year, the financial control board, with considerable prodding from Republicans in Congress, stripped the city’s first elected body of its powers in November 1996. Leaders of that coup promised to spend four years training school board members on the basics of running a big-city school system in hopes they won’t fail again once power is returned to them at the end of 2000.

Dissed elected board members, however, have bitten the hands of their trainers. Instead of taking advice from the control board and its appointed emergency school board of trustees, the elected board has spent the past two years suing the control board over its loss of powers.

In an effort to end the legal wrangling, new control board Chairman Alice Rivlin has opened negotiations to transfer power back to the school board. This year’s school board elections, considered by many the most critical in the 30 years since District residents won the right to elect the panel, could determine how quickly that transfer takes place.

Before doing anything rash, Rivlin should take a close look at the 25 contenders for the at-large school board seat and four ward seats up for grabs in November.

When Ward 5 political gadfly Robert “Bob” Artisst sat out this year’s council contest in his home ward—the first Ward 5 council race he has missed since home rule ushered in council elections 24 years ago—it appeared that the city’s most defeated politician had given up. But he has never met an election he could resist, and Artisst now is among the eight contenders for the at-large seat being vacated by incumbent Jay Silberman.

Former council candidate Ernest “Ernie” Brooks also hopes lightning will strike in his bid for Silberman’s seat. Other notable at-large candidates include controversial school activist George Pope and fiery Barry defender Mary E. Cox, who used the title “attorney” as if it were her first name in her outspoken defense of Hizzoner during his 1990 cocaine trial.

Pope will have the toughest time convincing voters he can provide the collaborative spirit the next school board so critically needs. He burst on the scene eight years ago as the leader of Save Our Schools, a confrontational band that disrupted a November 1990 school board meeting after the board voted to fire school superintendent Andrew Jenkins. The infamous pitcher-throwing incident happened during this meeting, but Valencia Mohammed, not Pope, was fingered as the hurler. Her curve proved politically advantageous: Two years later, she won election to an at-large seat and spent four years tossing her grenades from the inside.

Pope and crew subsequently mounted unsuccessful recalls of four board members who bucked his views on school privatization, Jenkins’ fitness for office, and Afro-centric curricula for D.C. schools. His December 1990 effort to recall Ward 1 school board member Wilma Harvey sparked an investigation by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, and a referral to the D.C corporation counsel for prosecution of possible election fraud. The office quietly dropped the matter.

Pope, who successfully ducked a subpoena in the board’s investigation, wasn’t so lucky after allegedly making threatening phone calls to Silberman in 1995. He was arrested at the U.S. Capitol in the summer of 1996 on an outstanding warrant stemming from the phone calls. Capitol Police were alerted after a tense encounter between Pope and a congressional staffer over District school budget issues.

However, he won acquittal in a subsequent jury trial.

Now Pope wants a seat on a panel that he has spent a decade helping to discredit and humiliate.

D.C. Statehood Party activist Gail Dixon, Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner Gerry Counihan, and newcomers Daryl Ross and Harold Hunter round out the at-large field.

The ward races also feature several failed office-seekers hoping this year’s lackluster school board contests will launch their comebacks.

David Brewer, one of three of Hairston’s Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers who sought school board seats four years ago, is counting on better results the second time around as he competes with five other contenders for the Ward 2 school board post being vacated by Wilcox. Outspoken Georgetown activist Westy Byrd, the Rev. George Holmes, and retired federal labor official Malcolm Lovell stand out in this field of six.

Byrd showed up all opponents at Monday night’s forum sponsored by the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. However, the former Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner will have a tough time convincing voters she won’t use the school board seat to run against Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans in two years. Byrd insists that if elected she will serve her full term.

In Ward 4, Dwight Singleton hopes to jump-start his stalled political career against incumbent Butler-Truesdale. The aggressive Singleton lost his 1996 bid to unseat Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis but is likely to try again in two years, especially if Jarvis decides to retire, as expected. Singleton also lost his bid this past summer to become president of Ward 4 Democrats and take over the ward’s party apparatus.

Butler-Truesdale, the only school board incumbent seeking re-election this year, toyed with running for an at-large council seat but decided at the last minute to play it safe and hang onto her current job.

Newcomer John Howard and professional puppeteer Tommy Duren, a leader of last year’s boycott of Eddie Bauer clothing stores following complaints of harassment of black shoppers, also are hoping to snatch Butler-Truesdale’s job.

The field for the Ward 7 seat won’t have much trouble making voters forget the Hairston era. Both of the main candidates—Ward 7 activist Sam Bost and retired principal Tom Kelly—have coherent platforms and records as coalition builders.

The Ward 8 school board race appears to be a warm-up for the ward council race in two years. William Lockridge, the Bob Artisst of Ward 8, is making another try for the seat being vacated by Moody, who failed to move up to higher office in last month’s at-large council race.

The better-known Lockridge faces a spirited challenge from former council staffer and teacher Jeff Canady, also viewed as a potential rival to Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen.

Perhaps voters should require this year’s crop of school board candidates to sign pledges that they won’t seek higher office during their tenure on the board. That would narrow the field considerably and make it easier for voters to separate the serious contenders from the gadflies and opportunists.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

It took 15 days for Democratic mayoral nominee Anthony Williams and his large band of committed followers to erupt in the jubilation that was absent primary night. The eruption came during Ward 8 coordinator Phil Pannell’s 48th birthday party Sept. 30 at Players Lounge, which turned into a spontaneous Williams campaign party.

Even Hizzoner got wind that a wild party was under way and climbed out of his sickbed, where he was recuperating following more surgery connected with his prostate cancer, to check out the scene.

Williams, rumored to be incapable of relaxing in a crowd of people, brought down the house with his karaoke rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s anthem, “I Will Survive.” Cora Masters Lady MacBarry and First Lady-in-Waiting Diane Williams also took to the karaoke stage to sing duets of “Happy Birthday” to Pannell and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

“If the whole city can turn on like this, we’re really going to be in for some good times,” campaign treasurer Marie Drissel exuded afterward.

If nothing else, defeated Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas can be accused of bad timing. Two weeks after losing his seat over his coziness with trash transfer station operators in his ward, Thomas last week embraced new regs requiring a 500-foot buffer zone around these dump sites. His newfound resolve came during a Sept. 29 council hearing he chaired on the stations.

During the campaign, Thomas favored softening the requirements—which pleased Dickie Carter, a prominent campaign contributor and local trash mogul. But at last week’s hearing, the crotchety councilmember lambasted lobbyists Fred Cooke and David Wilmot for trying to defeat the buffer zone legislation.

Waste haulers contend that no site in town can satisfy the 500-foot buffer zone. They still hope to fashion a compromise before January, when the next council—which could include two new members supporting the buffer zone—is seated.CP

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