On Thursday evening at the Hill Center, incumbent Ward 6 DC State Board of Education (SBOE) representative Joe Weedon and challenger Jessica Sutter met in a debate hosted by former Ward 6 Councilmember and current Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) Director Tommy Wells.
The debate was hosted by the Ward 6 Democrats, the DC Republican Party, the Capitol Hill Public School Parent Organization, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, CHAMPS, the Hill Center and the Hill Rag.
Wells, a former ward 6 representative to the State Board of Education, walked the candidates through questions on topics ranging from the need for environmental education in the school to the search for a new DC Public School (DCPS) Chancellor.
Incumbent Weedon drew on his 14 years of experience as a parent and advocate in the public school system. Many of his responses re-enforced his message about the strengthening of neighborhood schools as the core of a system that provides equity and choice.
Challenger Jessica Sutter based many of her answers in her ten years of experience as a teacher in publicly chartered middle schools in East Los Angeles and DC, as well as referencing her experiences as an education consultant with non-profit agencies, philanthropic organizations and public charter boards.
We're here with Ward 6's candidates for the DC State Board of Education, Joe Weedon and Jessica Sutter. This forum is moderated by Tommy Wells, the Director of the District Department of Energy and Environment. Thanks for joining us!
Posted by Hill Center on Thursday, September 20, 2018
The two largely agreed on topics such as the need for increased funding for students needing special education and in helping to close the achievement gap.
Both said they supported continued Mayoral control as well as independence for OSSE, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, although Sutter specifically aligned herself with the bill written by Councilmember David Grosso (At-Large-I) while Weedon said he liked aspects of both the Grosso bill and another put forward by Mary Cheh (Ward 3-D), and would support further discussion on the topic.
However, neither took a position at the debate on the court case put forward by two Hill parents arguing that the panel assembled by the Mayor to select a Chancellor did not comply with DC Code, preferring to focus their comments on the lack of trust in the school system.
Sutter drew Weedon in by saying that she thought that many Ward 6 residents did not know who their SBOE representative is or what the board does. She said that she’d like to see the board take a more proactive role in publicizing their role as well as in proposing policy.
There was also some back and forth on the issue of campaign financing. “I believe that every campaign should be local,” Weedon said adding that 85% of his funding has come from Ward 6 voters and from people he has worked with in DC. He said he was concerned with campaign funding that came from outside the District and its potential influence on the city.
Sutter said that while many of her contributors came from outside the city, all were individuals who she knew personally and for a long time, including close friends and relatives like her father and her Aunt Sue, the latter present at the debate.
“I believe that everybody who supports me supports me because they believe in me,” she said before stating that Weedon himself had donated to campaigns out of state.
Weedon began to deny this statement before debate on the subject was stopped by Wells.
A Winning Ticket: the Common Lottery
Weedon and Sutter also agreed that the common lottery system was imperfect and called for improvements to the lottery, with Weedon pointing out that when surveyed 91% of white respondents said they got into one of their top 3 choices compared to only 70 percent of African Americans.
Meanwhile, Sutter proposed that preferences in the lottery could be applied differently to ensure that at-risk students get a leg up. She suggested a catchment system could replace the in-bounds school system to provide more at-risk students with access to higher performing schools.
Both Weedon and Sutter alluded to the relationship between students and gun violence as experiences that formed them as education advocates.
Sutter told a story from her first year of teaching summer school in Chicago. She said a student was refused a seat on the bus for a school field trip due to his disruptive behavior. The student was shot to death later that day.
Sutter said the situation reminded her of the importance of speaking to students in a loving manner, because teachers cannot know what kids are experiencing outside of the school.
“I’d like to make sure that we’re thinking about discipline and policies in ways that keep kids with adults that care for them and look out for them so that we don’t have more situations like I experienced,” she said.
Weedon recalled leading a tour of Joliet Correction Facility during his days working on criminal justice policy. As the tour walked past cell gates covered with plexiglass and into the room containing the electric chair, the door stuck and the warden asked Weedon to close it.
As he did, Weedon saw the face of a sixteen-year-old boy pressed against the glass.
Weedon said the warden told him that the boy had been picked up for truancy and was left in jail overnight to teach him a lesson.
The boy stole a gun from the deputy, then shot two people and was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
“We failed that student,” Weedon said.
Watch the Debate
The debate lasted for a little less than two hours and was attended by about 150 audience members. The event was filmed and can be viewed in its entirety on the Hill Center Facebook page.
Candidates for At-Large seats on DC Council will debate at 7 p.m. October 10. This debate has been relocated to Chamberlain Elementary School (1345 Potomac Ave SE).
A debate between candidates for Ward 6 Councilmember will take place October 12. Both will take place at the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE).