4 Candidates Vie for Ward 2 School Board Seat

The DC State Board of Education, with nine elected representatives, is one of those District entities that is little known and with little power beyond advising the state superintendent of education and the mayor. Yet its vacant seats in Ward 2 and Ward 7 have attracted strong, ambitious and active candidates. Their positions on some emerging educational issues may challenge the strong mayoral role in D.C. education instituted in 2007, when the powers of the State Board were all but eviscerated by newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty.

The four candidates vying for the Ward 2 seat are: Allister Chang, James Harnett, Sarah Mehrotra and Christopher Etesse.  At a Ward 2 school board candidates panel on Oct. 14, sponsored by the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, all expressed deep concern about the lack of transparency of DC Public Schools’ decision-making process. In particular, they cited the mayor’s opaque decision of how and when to fully reopen public schools for in-person instruction, as well as on the sudden firing on Oct. 8 of School Without Walls Principal Richard Trogisch.

Only data technician Etesse expressed support for keeping the State Board of Education in an advisory role, leaving public education in the District under tight mayoral control. The other three candidates support a more active role.

“We need to develop a plan for how we move the State Board of Education from a symbolic role to a more meaningful role for residents,” Chang has said repeatedly. “Mayoral control does not serve our students,” Harnett stated. “The State Board of Education should have greater autonomy and oversight of schools,” Mehrota told the Washington Post.

Chang, 30, lives in Georgetown, where he is active in community organizations, including the Friends of Rose Park market. He has worked for United Nations and UNICEF international education programs in the areas of literacy and lifelong learning. In September, he joined the cohort of Halcyon Fellows pursuing innovative social entrepreneurship projects. “The way DCPS and the mayor handle issues causes serious concerns about trust,” Chang said in advocating for more transparency and closer interaction with the State Board.

Etesse, 47, is a cybersecurity expert who has worked for universities and in educational technology, notably virtual learning, for over 20 years. He calls himself “the tech guy who is running who can be helpful to the schools.” He is in favor of opening some schools — especially the new ones like Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Hyde-Addison Elementary — immediately, although with safety precautions. “I favor mayoral control,” he said.

Harnett, 22, chairs the Foggy Bottom advisory neighborhood commission. A senior at George Washington University, he worked for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology during the Obama administration. He does not favor opening D.C. public schools for in-person learning to all students until they are deemed safe, especially by the teachers’ unions. And he wants more transparency and involvement of the board on hiring and firings. “We still don’t know what happened at School Without Walls,” he said. “There is no process that involves the Board of Education.”

Mehrotra, 28, is a former teacher, published Harvard education researcher and holds an advanced degree in education policy from Harvard. She works at the Education Trust which is led by President Obama’s former Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. Her main interest is in shaping a strong and diverse teaching force and supporting early literacy. She believes that the State Board of Education should have greater autonomy and oversight of schools.

In its 2019 annual report, the State Board viewed its achievements over the past year as having addressed issues such as teacher retention and the social studies curriculum and having engaged “all sectors of the community to play a vital role in preparing every child for college and/or career success.” The elected members are paid $10,000 a year.



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