- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

You would think that less than two weeks from one of the most important elections in the District’s history, the auditorium at the University of the District of Columbia would have been packed Wednesday night for a candidates forum.

Hardly. In fact, the largest contingent in the small audience was a group with very little stake in the critical election’s outcome — my Catholic University journalism students, most of whom live elsewhere.

Incorrectly, I assumed, this practical learning experience would offer them a taste of D.C. politics at its grass-roots level. So we piled in several cars, crossed the park and waited, and waited, and waited, for the start of the forum that provided an up-close-and-personal look at the potential leaders of the city’s beleaguered school system.

Granted, campaign workers for the front-runners were there to hand out literature and root for their candidates, but the absence of parents and students was glaring.

Nearly a half-hour after its scheduled start, moderator Kojo Nnamdi got the show under way with only two candidates for school board president present — former City Administrator Robert C. Bobb and former Interim UDC President Timothy L. Jenkins.

Truth be told, after listening to them at several venues, these men are the candidates who bear closest watch in the field of five vying to make a herculean difference in the broken system that so many, especially parents, are abandoning. The other candidates — who arrived quite late — are parent advocate Laurent Ross, teacher Sunday Abraham and Carolyn N. Graham, the appointed vice president of the school board and a former deputy under Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Too much of the public discussion is focused on Democratic mayoral nominee Adrian M. Fenty’s half-baked plan to take over the school system, a plan no one has seen.

As Mr. Bobb rightly pointed out, when asked, the candidates are running under the current system, which gives them authority over and makes them accountable for the majority of the city’s children, children who cannot afford another failed school board, elected or otherwise.

Leadership is what is lacking and needed most in the school system, Mr. Bobb shouted.

“We need more than bureaucrats,” retorted Mr. Jenkins, referring to predecessors, including an Army general, who he said have messed up the system.

Mr. Ross said he has the largest stake in the system because he is the only one with a child in public schools (as well as two who have graduated). Mrs. Abraham said she would concentrate on academics and would implement citywide the teaching methods she used to improve her students’ performance in math, science and the environment.

Ms. Graham speaks like such a policy wonk that she shows little passion for the post. That is, until she is pressed — as she was by Mr. Nnamdi — to explain her personal problems relating to accusations of ethics violations. Her major flaw, she contended in her vehement denial of any wrongdoing, is simply that she is too trusting of people.

Ms. Graham, like Mr. Jenkins, talks about bringing back vocational education programs, which were eliminated despite loud parent and student protests, by her former boss and the autocratic D.C. financial control board.

The District, as I predicted, is paying the hefty price, in the high crime rate among unemployable offenders, for the shortsightedness of Mr. Williams, who was the chief financial officer at the time.

Mr. Bobb, whose raison d’etre until now was to bring in the burgeoning baseball boondoggle, gets pretty fired up talking about his commitment to educating the city’s youth these days, sometimes shouting like a preacher as he did at the Ward 8 Democrats’ meeting on Saturday.

Mr. Bobb talks about the need to work in conjunction with the council, the mayor and Congress to improve the system, in part, by replicating some of its successes.

At this point, Mr. Bobb seems to be in the lead, with the most name recognition and visible organization, mainly because he has raised the most money.

That money, primarily from developers and the business community, is creating a problem, however. Some activists and detractors are not shy about their contention that Mr. Bobb wants the board president’s job only so he can “be a real estate agent” and sell surplus school property to friends.

Mr. Jenkins clearly commands this candidate field, as he touts his knowledge and experience as a teacher and school administrator. But he exposes a political naivete that could be his undoing in dealings with the city’s power structure.

His rallying cry is not to let this election or the modernization funds for schools be “stolen” by those who would squander, mismanage or give it to friends.

On the ride back to campus, I was accompanied by two of my students, one a budding journalist, the other a future accountant.

The accountant favored Mr. Bobb because of his promise to emphasize reading skills. The journalist was torn but gave Mr. Jenkins the edge as a proven educator. Both agreed that they had difficulty understanding Ms. Graham’s bureaucratic message.

Folks clamor about education as the No. 1 priority for D.C. residents and stakeholders in building a brighter future. Yet I have gone to at least two poorly attended candidate forums that make me question the notion that improving the scenario for students — failing in schools that are ranked fifth from the bottom nationwide — really matters most.

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