- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

In the sprint to be president of the new hybrid school board and leader of the District of Columbia's academic renaissance, contenders are distinguished more by personality than promises.

With a pastor and school-system insider; a philanthropist and city mover-and-shaker; and a grass-roots community organizer and school activist, the candidates could hardly be more different, even if what they say will improve schools is not more parental involvement, enhanced curriculum; more after-school programs, better facilities and, of course, more money.

Yet the outcome will depend more on who rather than what voters believe is crucial to the school system's revitalization.

"It's very important that this board come up with a way for [parents] to engage them," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, outgoing director of Parents United, a D.C. parents organization.

"The school board has to be an ambassador for invigorating the schools to reach a higher level of achievement."

In a historic and divisive June election, city voters narrowly approved a new shape for their powerless school board: reducing it to nine members from the previous 11, with four members to be appointed by the mayor and four elected from four newly created districts. The board also will have a president elected at-large for the first time to eliminate paralyzing bickering among members and internal politics.

At the same time, the board president will regain true policymaking power for the first time in four years as the D.C. financial control board withdraws its control over the school system in January.

But it is still not clear how power will be shared between elected board members and those appointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Thus, say activists and city leaders, the school system needs a board president with a firm, guiding hand. Others say the school board must have a true conciliator to unite any divisive factions.

"There is the potential now for greater solidarity, but also there is potential for greater conflict," said Mrs. Rice-Thurston. "This person has to be a very diplomatic person. We don't want any people at war with each other."

The three contenders for school board president have a history of civic activism with youths and schools. Similarities end there.

Self-proclaimed system outsider Larry Gray became a school activist 5 and 1/2 years ago when he devoted himself to youths in his troubled Capitol Hill neighborhood in Northeast.

Since then, he has worked as legislative chairman for D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, an umbrella group of city parent-teacher associations.

Mr. Gray is more radically opposed to charter schools and the hybrid school board than the other candidates. He spearheaded opposition to the referendum on the school board, seeing it as a power grab by the mayor for total control of the system that would lead to political cronyism while taking power away from voters and parents.

Even so, Mr. Gray, 52, said he is committed to making the hybrid board work. "This is a nonpartisan race this is about education," said the 25-year resident of the District.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the co-founder of Duke Ellington School for the Arts, is a strong-minded, often abrasive leader, as one city insider described her, who doesn't suffer fools gladly and is perfect for bringing smarts and order to the board.

"I can get along with anybody, especially when it's on behalf of someone else," Ms. Cafritz said. "You might go home and scream … but you have to get it done."

The self-styled "political junkie" has a long history of involvement in education and the arts. She welcomes the mayor's endorsement, but said she is not or will not become the mayor's puppet.

If elected, she said, her first act will be to take the new board on a retreat so all the members can get acquainted, removing the necessity for back-room dealing.

She hopes open doors among members will draw parents into the process.

"I believe in having a really open system," Ms. Cafritz said. "I definitely plan to make parents a huge part of this."

Because many parents don't have any idea what constitutes a quality education, she said, it is necessary to encourage participation and communication among parents, teachers and counselors. She said she would establish an education program for parents and hold open houses at the schools once a month.

The Rev. Robert Childs, pastor at Berean Baptist Church, touts himself as the school system insider and believes his experience will be beneficial as president of the new hybrid board.

"I am the only candidate that understands the system from the inside," said Mr. Childs, who was elected president of the school board before the D.C. Financial Control Board took over.

"I know which problems are pressing and how to begin to deal with them."

Mr. Childs decries his inability to act over the four years the control board had oversight authority over the school system. But he said he worked behind the scenes to build relationships and make academic progress. He was one of two elected members on the Emergency Board of Trustees before it dissolved earlier this year.

He said he opposed the hybrid board because the public wasn't involved in the process, but he vows to make it work.

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