Report from the W4Dems SBOE Forum

Last night, the Ward 4 Democrats hosted the latest forum for Ward 4 State Board of Education (SBOE) candidates. By my count, more than 70 Ward 4 voters showed up, packing out the room at The Kingsbury Center.

Shoutout to former Councilmember Sekou Biddle, who put himself on chair duty as the room filled up, while I handled sign-in.

Over the course of ninety minutes, candidates Rhonda Henderson, Elani Lawrence, Frazier O’Leary, and Ryan Tauriainen responded to questions submitted in advance by community members, mostly parents or teachers. Moderator, Ward 4 Dems President, and ANC 4A06 Commissioner-elect Candace Tiana Nelson asked questions in the order they were received.

I did my best to live-tweet the questions and answers, which you can read in full here.

This forum stood out from those you might have seen during the At-Large Council race. Why? Because unlike the Council, which has a purview so broad that no single candidate can speak authoritatively on every issue, this campaign is all about one major topic: education. And each candidate brought some level of education expertise to the table. It was refreshing, but it also made for a very dense discussion.

To discern the major differences between the candidates, you had to listen closely. Question-by-question, that was difficult to do. But if you review that Twitter thread, you may see some broad themes that distinguish each candidate.

In discussing the OSSE rating system and a proposed independent research consortium, for example, Henderson repeatedly emphasized that she favors a data-driven approach to measuring student and school performance. O’Leary, on the other hand, emphatically said that “kids aren’t data” and argued for more holistic approach to measuring impact and growth.

Tauriainen, an award-winning teacher and principal, stood out from the crowd on several occasions, providing contemporary examples of how the system functions for almost every answer. He regularly took on the role of explainer, providing context on specific questions. For example, he provided the unnerving background on the sexual assault-related scandals at Roosevelt High and Shepherd Elementary. He also ensured the audience understood how OSSE’s current rating system originated and the relationship between the proposed research consortium and the scandal at Ballou.

Overwhelmingly, Tauriainen and O’Leary drew the most applause from the audience. While Lawrence and Henderson seemed to reserve judgment on the system’s response to the Roosevelt and Shepherd incidents, Tauriainen and O’Leary condemned the failure to protect children and hold educators and administrators responsible for their egregious behavior. They also both argued fiercely for the SBOE to have greater authority.

On that issue of mayoral control, Henderson emphatically stated her support for continued mayoral power, saying that it provides a simple line of accountability. Lawrence, meanwhile, argued that it’s the Council’s job to hold the Mayor accountable, and it’s SBOE members’ job to champion community concerns to ensure the Council does just that.

O’Leary, a legendary and longtime Cardozo teacher, put the strongest emphasis on supporting teachers and addressing DC’s terrible record on teacher retention. He called for the outright elimination of PARCC scores and said that he sees more power for the SBOE as the prerequisite for holding the executive branch accountable on other issues.

Each candidate promised to engage more deeply with community members. Tauriainen promised to be available to parents and teachers and to run a regular circuit at PTA and even ANC meetings. Henderson committed to creating a regular newsletter, hosting face-to-face meetings in living rooms across the ward, and engaging civic/citizens associations in education discussions.

O’Leary pointed to his nearly five decades of engaging “every single day” with parents, students, teachers, and administrators. He promised to be in “someone’s school every single day.” Lawrence offered her experience as a parent advocate, working with educators and other stakeholders to create more out-of-school programs for students, as an example of how she’d engage as an SBOE member.

On the issue of charter school accountability and transparency, there were some real differences. Henderson cited her work in the charter system, claiming that they already set high standards for themselves and are willing to be more transparent. Lawrence, O’Leary, and Tauriainen, meanwhile, pushed back, saying there is a need for reporting, transparency, and freedom of information rules to apply equally regardless of charter or public school status.

O’Leary stood out, noting that funding for charters is often based on enrollment numbers, but, when students transfer out of a charter into a public school, that funding doesn’t follow them. Tauriainen noted that the lack of open meetings has led to criminal levels of corruption in some DC charter schools

I spoke with a couple of attendees after the event. For those who have been paying close attention to the race, none seemed to have changed their minds about their favored candidate. For those who were seeing the candidates in action for the first time, several mentioned liking O’Leary’s no-nonsense approach, while one told me they really appreciated Lawrence’s focus on supporting students and families for whom English is a second language.

The special election to fill the vacant Ward 4 SBOE seat is on Tuesday, December 4th. Find your polling place and learn more on the Board of Elections website.

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