Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Wash Post: Education is the issue

One Word Dwells on the Lips Of Ward 3 Candidates: Schools
Hopefuls Try to Emerge From Crowd by Pacifying Uneasy Parents
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006; B05

The Democratic primary for the Ward 3 D.C. Council seat is a contest about who knows more, who cares more and who can do more about public schools. And candidates are falling all over themselves to stand out.

Bill Rice, who has no children, is distributing a doorknob placard boldly claiming, "Only Bill Rice Can Fix Our Schools." Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss said he jumped into the race because he is the only candidate who currently has a child in a public school. Mary Cheh, whose children went to a private high school, recently held an education forum to get ideas from a small group of parents.

The race has turned into a feverish, single-issue election because the candidates primarily have talked about public schools, a longtime issue for the ward. Incumbent Kathy Patterson (D), who is giving up the seat to run for council chairman, began her political career 12 years ago as a public schools advocate.

The issue "certainly has a life of its own," said Alan Spears, corresponding secretary for the Ward 3 Democrats. "It's something people can grab on to and make their own."

Spears said he has remained neutral as he wades through the nine Ward 3 candidates who are seeking the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 12 primary.

The field is rounded out by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Robert Gordon and Cathy Wiss, political consultant Sam Brooks, former council staffer Eric Goulet, health-care business administrator Jonathan Rees and Erik Gaull, former special assistant to the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Gaull is the only candidate who has previously run for the seat. He lost to Patterson in 2002.

Melissa Torgovitsky, last year's co-president of the PTA at Janney Elementary School, said there is a desperation in the air about where to send children once they move on to middle and high school. The route in Ward 3 leads to Alice Deal Junior High and then to Woodrow Wilson Senior High, considered the best comprehensive public high school in the District. But many ward parents are not satisfied with the facilities and academics. They choose private schools to educate their children in the upper years.

"Right now, everyone's uneasy and exploring other options," said Torgovitsky, a stay-at-home mom.

Residents are looking for a council member who can help fix the schools so private school doesn't have such a draw, Torgovitsky said. "A lot of families would consider staying in the District if they knew the schools were better," she said.

There are other issues in the election, such as rising property taxes, whether high-rises should be built on Wisconsin Avenue and how the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department should have responded in the case of New York Times journalist David E. Rosenbaum, who died after being attacked and robbed near his Ward 3 home.

Patterson has served as a broad voice for the ward on citywide issues such as crime and education as chairman of the council's committees on judiciary and education matters.

Residents are now demanding a more micromanaged approach to the schools.

The ward's high-performing elementary schools have lengthy waiting lists of out-of-boundary students. The crowded, dilapidated schools are also subsidized by parents voluntarily forking over money, in some cases more than $1,000 a student, to pay the salaries of teacher's aides and librarians. The parent-teacher associations operate like small corporations in a ward where 79 percent of residents hold college degrees, according to census data.

In the crowded field, it's difficult to pull front-runners out of the pack, said Robert M. Brandon, chairman of the Ward 3 Democrats. "I don't know if there's any real good measure of that," he said.

But Rice, Strauss and Cheh are ahead in raising funds. Rice, a former spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation, has tapped his old connections to raise about $145,000, more than any other Ward 3 candidate.

The three candidates have also collected big endorsements.

Rice has received endorsements from Service Employees International Union Locals 32BJ, District 82 and 500, as well as TENAC, a tenant advocacy group. He touts his job in the Transportation Department as giving him the experience to solve the problems in the public school system, particularly the repair of the crumbling schools.

"I think the modernization problem is not so much an academic problem as it is a management problem," he said.

Strauss, who has been a shadow senator since 1996, has received the backing of the influential Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO. As the only candidate who has a child in a public school, he said, "I'm invested now."

The D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club, the D.C. Firefighters Association and the Northwest Current, a weekly newspaper serving Ward 3, have endorsed Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University.

Cheh, who has the support of Patterson, often finds herself on the defensive on the campaign trail. Critics question her dedication to public schools and her ability to juggle hours at the council and at the university.

Cheh said she will work out a plan with George Washington to be available for council business. She also dismissed criticism about her devotion to public schools. She said her children did not have to go to a public high school for her to empathize with parents whose children attend public schools. "I don't buy it," she said. "I don't buy it at all."

This month, she held an education forum in the living room of the home of Marlene Berlin, a public schools advocate who is supporting Cheh for council.

Goulet said all the talk about education is masking the more important issue of the city's financial health. "The reason I got in the race is because everyone was just talking about education. No one's talking about the city's overall finances," said Goulet, former clerk of the council's Finance and Revenue Committee. "Honestly, a lot of them sound like they're running for the school board. There's only so much a council member can do."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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