Proponent of traditional public schools wins race for D.C. school board seat

Joe Heim

December 5, 2018
In the last act of a busy local election year, District voters Tuesday in Ward 4 picked Frazier O’Leary to represent them on the D.C. State Board of Education.

O’Leary, a former District teacher who had the support of the Washington Teachers’ Union, took 47 percent of the vote in a four-person race in the special election held to fill the seat of Lannette Woodruff. Woodruff gave up her post earlier this year when she moved out of the city.

Rhonda Henderson, who was backed by charter school supporters and by D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), came in second with 37 percent of the vote. Elani Lawrence and Ryan Tauriainen took the remainder of the ballots.

Turnout was low in the election, with just under 8 percent of registered voters in the ward — about 5,000 people — casting ballots. The issues separating the candidates, particularly a divide between support for traditional public schools and the growing number of charter schools, mirrored those in elections last month for four other school board seats.
[Meet the candidates running to represent Ward 4 on the D.C. State Board of Education]

O’Leary’s victory means that in four of the five school board races this year, the candidate backed by the Washington Teachers’ Union won.

“I think the people in the city want the public schools to be the leaders in education,” O’Leary said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m not against charter schools, but they need to play by the same rules as public schools and they don’t, so we need to change the rules.”

O’Leary, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran who taught in D.C. schools for 47 years, said he wants the school board to become a stronger force in directing and guiding the district’s schools. During his campaign, he called mayoral control of the school district “a disaster,” and he pushed for an educator to be fully in charge of schools.
When he joins the board in January, O’Leary said he will “advocate for the board to have something to do with choosing the chancellor and have something to do other than just stamping policy set out by [the Office of the State Superintendent of Education].”

Elizabeth A. Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said O’Leary’s win was an important victory for her members who want a strong advocate for traditional public schools on the board.

“It’s imperative that you have people on the board who are interested in stabilizing and improving our public school system and are not going to focus on privatization schemes,” Davis said.

In November, the usually sleepy races for the D.C. State Board of Education had turned into a fight over the future of public education, with candidates backed by the teachers union facing off against contenders supported by a powerful charter advocacy organization.
The city’s elected school board was stripped of most of its power in 2007 when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) wrested away control of the school system. Now, the State Board of Education is limited to setting broad policies governing graduation requirements, academic standards and teacher qualifications.

The contentious elections came in a year when D.C. schools have been mired in scandals. Many of the races were defined by the candidates’ stances on how much power the mayor should have over the city’s schools.

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