James H. DeGraffenreidt, Jr. is immediate past chairman of the Maryland State Board of Education and former chairman of the board and chief executive officer of WGL Holdings, Inc., the parent company of Washington Gas. He also served as chairman and CEO of Washington Gas, the natural gas utility serving over 1 million customers in the Washington metropolitan area and surrounding region.
In addition to serving on the boards of the Walters Art Museum and the Maryland Science Center, DeGraffenreidt is in his second term on the State Board of Education.
DeGraffenreidt received his Juris Doctor and Master of Business Administration from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale College. He has four children and lives in Cedarcroft with his wife, Dr. Mychelle Farmer.
As the former chairman and CEO of a large company, what made you interested in education policy in Maryland?
I’m not an educator but I come from a family of career educators. I was born one year before the historic Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, and that was a big deal in my house growing up. Educational pursuits were considered the key way for black folks in general—and my family in particular—to advance.
You have been a champion for reducing suspension, recognizing that it often deters children, most often those of color and those with disabilities, from returning to school with a desire to participate. How did you first learn that suspension—a practice that has long been used to discipline behavior and make students learn how valuable education is—could have the direct opposite result?
While I was chairman of the Board of Education, we heard a case about a female student who had been suspended for fighting. The penalty was supposed to be for 30-60 days. We got the case nearly a year after the incident. The child had not attended school for that entire time—for nine months. And she had not received any educational services during her out- of-school suspension time. We said to ourselves—there’s something very wrong here. So we started looking at what was driving these suspensions and one road led to another road. We found out that the vast majority of suspensions had nothing to do with violent infractions. And what was even more alarming was that the overwhelming majority of suspensions for those infractions—for things such as “disrespect”—were for African American students. As you can imagine, this started us on a very interesting journey.
When did you begin to first hear about the work of OSI-Baltimore?
Well, OSI-Baltimore was very much involved in this work. Unlike a lot of others, OSI understood the value of giving time for all the stakeholders to talk to each other. And they actually put up money to provide people who were skilled in facilitating, so that we could create a process where everyone who cared about this issue could work together and come up with the best practices that were replicable across the state. OSI staff appeared on panels, submitted comments for the board to consider and, on their own initiative, they funded and facilitated the workshops that got all the stakeholders together to reform the school discipline policies. Until then, I had vaguely heard about OSI; I’d read about them, but I didn’t have any personal knowledge of or interaction with them. But during that process, I became quite impressed. I realized OSI had a lot to say about this issue and was very sharp about it. And then I realized that many smart people I liked and admired were on OSI’s board, such as Judge Andre M. Davis, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker and attorney Robin Wood. So I joined the board in September 2014.
Now that you are on OSI-Baltimore’s board—and you’re getting to know more about our work—what have you learned that has impressed you?
I like the fact that OSI thinks about and puts its resources to support initiatives that start with people, but with a view toward benefitting a much broader community. They don’t just fall into the trap of, ‘Oh, that’s a nice idea.’ They’re disciplined about asking questions of every grantee, every idea: What are the outcomes? What’s the benefit to society? What are we going to have at the end of this project or this program? And why does it matter?
Is it fair to say you are most interested in OSI-Baltimore’s education work because of your hard work in the field of education?
That’s the beauty of it—I don’t think you can segregate any of their priority areas out. I think they’re all interrelated. What attracts me to OSI is that I get to help work on all of those things. OSI doesn’t allow undisciplined advocacy arguments—they want to know what the data shows. Their approach is data-driven and results-focused and I think that that serves Baltimore well.