At a Jan. 29 school board press conference, newly elected Ward 6 school board member Benjamin Bonham got the first big shock in his career as an elected city official. As newly installed board president Don Reeves walked into the event, he handed Bonham a clipping from that day’s Washington Times listing a bunch of schools threatened for closure for fire-code violations. Five schools in Bonham’s ward were on the list.
The story wasn’t exactly novel: D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye K. Christian, a longtime nemesis of bumbling school bureaucrats, had shuttered D.C. schools three times since 1994 for violations like leaky roofs and faulty wiring.
The fire-code fiasco was just the sort of managerial incompetence that Bonham had vowed to root out of the D.C. Public School system (DCPS) during his fall school board campaign. One of a group of triumphant reformist candidates, Bonham pledged that he would help keep schools open, hold administrators accountable, and cut the fat on the school system’s payroll.
So when news of the impending school closings spread among Bonham’s constituents, they went to him for answers.
“My phone was ringing all hours of the day and night,” explains an exasperated Bonham. “They were saying, ‘Ben, we voted for you. Don’t close our school.’”
“I told them that I sympathized with them; I know their concerns,” Bonham says. “I only found about it myself by reading the Washington Times. No board members knew. But [school CEO] Gen. Becton knew; the trustees knew,” Bonham argued. “[Parents] were just upset. Not knowing too many of the details, it was difficult for me to say too much.”
Sympathizing with constituents is just about all Bonham and his colleagues can do at this point. On Election Day last fallas Bonham and his cohorts were celebrating their successful campaignsthe control board leaked word that it wasn’t interested in their services: It had decided to nullify the elected board’s powers, transfer them to an appointed board of trustees, and hire Becton to govern the school system.
But while the control board had the gumption to neuter the school board, it lacked the balls to disband it altogether. Which leaves 11 elected representatives kicking around the city with nothing to do. They have their $15,000 salaries. They have their downtown offices. They have monthly meetings. They have the support of voters in their wards. But they have no say whatsoever in how the schools are run.
In years past, school board meetings provided an ideal opportunity for District parents to hammer the guardians of public education in the city. The meetings often took on the feel of a Senate filibuster, as activists soliloquized on their pet crusades, pushing adjournment times well past midnight. Despite the tedium and nonstop bombast, the meetings often attracted upward of 100 concerned residents.
People showed up for a reason: Before the November control board putsch, the school board had important powers, like choosing superintendents, amending curricula, and reviewing contracts.
Now that those powers have fallen from the school board’s portfolio, its meetings are vested with all the consequence of an afternoon tea chat, only with fewer participants.
A total of two residents, for example, signed up to address the school board at its Feb. 5 meeting at Patterson Elementary School in Southwest. The fireworks at the meeting begin with resident No. 2, who stands up to ask, well, what are we doing here?
“What jurisdiction do you still have authority over?” asks Constance Murphy, a Ward 8 resident with grandchildren in District schools.
The question prompts smirks among the crowd of 30 in attendance. Ward 1 representative Wilma Harvey fields Murphy’s question. “It has not been articulated how the Board of Education will operate under this new structure,” says Harvey.
Then another audience member voices her concern over a letter she received from her child’s school, informing parents that the school system plans to convert all junior high schools (grades 7, 8, and 9) to middle schools (grades 6, 7, and 8). The action involves not merely a shuffling of grades, but of facilities, students, teachers, and curricula.
Blank stares abound. None of the school board reps seems to know what the woman is talking about. Ward 8 representative Linda Moody fills the dead air with her own spin: “Somebody has just lost it,” she pronounces, motioning to three members of Becton’s staff who are silently taking notes. “I’m just gonna be straight. That’s the way it is.”
“Can you please tell us your relationship with the board of trustees?” demands Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United, a public schools advocacy group.
“We don’t have one,” Moody shoots back.
“I’m very disturbed that Gen. Becton is not here,” adds Rice-Thurston. “Because you are perceived to have no power there is little turnout at this meeting. But we have no other venue to voice our concerns as parents.”
According to Mary Levy, a researcher with Parents United, the school board’s only remaining power is approving public charter schools. And even that prerogative is dilutedthe board shares approval authority with three other bodies. So Levy is at a loss to explain why anyone would show up at the board’s meetings. “It’s unclear whether anything you saya parent sayswill matter,” says Levy. “Parents need to be able to call somebody who has a duty to listen to them. The trustees are able to ignore all the [school board] members. Plus, they don’t know much to begin with.”
The Presidential Building, home to the D.C. Board of Education, hardly inspires a visitor to whistle “Hail to the Chief.” Inattentive guards posted behind battered Plexiglas greet you at the door, rickety elevators ferry you upstairs, and abandoned rooms line the hallways.
On this Tuesday afternoon, Bonham appears to be the only board member working in the suite of offices on the building’s 11th floor. Aside from his 15-month-old daughter, Bonham’s only companions are a collection of empty desks, blank computer screens, and educational studies and reference tomes. Before the school board’s precipitous fall from grace last year, the offices were a bustling, if not bloated, hive manned by over 20 staffers. Now there are two.
The walls of Bonham’s office are filled with pictures of his young family and commendations for his service on behalf of various community organizations: Parents United, the D.C. Council for Parents With Special Needs, and the Boy Scouts of America. Three months ago Bonham defeated the Ward 6 incumbent, Bernard Gray, highlighting the need for new leadership and financial restructuring in the school system. He received the endorsement of many community leaders and the nod from the Washington Post.
A graduate of the D.C. public schools as well as a former teacher at his alma mater, Eastern High, Bonham initially became involved in school politics trying to mainstream his son into District schools. Born prematurely with physical complications, Xavier Bonham required special programs to meet his developmental needs.
Bonham’s first encounter with the D.C. public schools as a parent prompted him to break out in a popular local dance, the District Runaround. School officials assigned his son to a school equipped to meet his needs, but on the first day of school, the principal told Bonham and his son to take a hike because there wasn’t enough space for him. It took five months to place Xavier in his neighborhood school, Miner Elementary.
Bonham says teachers at Miner often strolled in an hour late, leaving classes unattended. And the school’s principal, he argues, failed to put out the welcome mat for parents to get involved. Bonham put out his own and became president of the school’s PTA. He organized parents to give the principal the boot. And over the past couple of years, he got involved in citywide parents groups as well, including Parents United. He acquired a reputation in Ward 6 as a doer.
“I didn’t want to run for the school board just to win political office,” Bonham says. “Parents asked me to run.”
And according to Bonham, those parents elected a school board member with about as much power as their ANC commissioner.
“Right now, there’s a lack of respect for citizens by Gen. Becton and the board of trustees. They provide no answers,” Bonham insists. “The people of D.C. effectuated some change. But now our powers have been usurped, the voice of the people silenced.” He declines to say any more on the record about the control board, citing a lawsuit brought by several board members contesting the legality of the control board’s actions. Barbara Wahl, who is representing the board members, is scheduled to present oral arguments before a U.S. District Court judge on Feb. 24.
Under the status quo, Bonham and other board members begrudge the trustees hoarding critical information on the schools. “The information is privy to the trustees, but not to the school board as required by the sunshine laws,” Bonham says. “If people ask us a question, we can’t give them answers.”
To witness a powerful contrast to their own irrelevance school board members need look no further than last Thursday night’s meeting of the DCPS board of trustees. Students, parents, and the media cram into the auditorium at Eastern High and devour the packets of materials distributed by the trustees. A few minutes into the meeting all the packets are gone.
Bonham walks into the auditorium and plants himself in the second row, just in time for a cursory review of DCPS’s fiscal year 1998 budget request. As chair of the school board’s budget and management committee, Bonham has pleaded for weeks to get a copy of the document from DCPS chief financial officer Abdusalam Omer.
Over 20 speaker, including parents, teachers, and students, approach the microphone, firing questions on topics ranging from RIFs to a proposed 5-percent salary increase to the safety code violations to the restructuring of middle schools.
“How do you plan to communicate with local school communities?” asks Meg Weekes, co-president of the Deal Junior High School PTA.
“Members of the Board of Education sit on our board, and we talk to them, and they talk to us,” Becton responds, as Reeves stares at his pen.
But when the meeting turns to a consideration of recommendations made by the school board at its November meeting, the trustees exhibit all the arrogance of an unelected, unaccountable body. They reject half the recommendations without a peep of debate. Still, board of trustees Chairman Bruce MacLaury tosses the school board a bone. “There is a new regime, a new organization in place, but it is the board of education on whom we rely on for recommendations,” MacLaury notes. Bonham, who has finally come across a topic he has enough information to comment on, shakes his head. “That’s not accurate,” he says later.CP