Last night’s much anticipated face off between the record number of candidates seeking election to three Falls Church School Board seats did not yield marked differences among them, and this combined with a smaller-than-expected turnout means that voters come Nov. 3 will have less clarity than they might have hoped for as the time draws nearer when they must chose three among eight candidates on the ballot.
The format of the forum — epic for having so many candidates, a number never before seen running for the School Board since election of School Boards became law in Virginia in 1994 — co-hosted by the Falls Church League of Women Voters and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society, did not challenge the candidates to take contrary positions on issues. In addition to opening and closing statements, the candidates were all asked different questions through five rounds of questions, thus never once did two or more of them have to opine on the same issues.
As a result, none of the remarks from the candidates, all articulate and intelligent and pro-schools, raised eyebrows or fueled sentiments. The closest thing to controversy, in fact, came when candidate Alison Kutchma got asked whether she would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on school grounds. She said her first reaction was to say no, but then said she would be open to both sides on the issue. Another unscripted response came when incumbent School Board chair Justin Castillo was asked how problems with drugs and alcohol among students should be dealt with..He said, with considerable candor, “This is a difficult issue because there has been a sea change in our culture” in attitudes on these matters, noting debates he’s had in his own home on the legalization of marijuana.
Teachers in the audience told the News-Press following the debate that, indeed, there are some morale issues with teachers in the school system resulting from pressures from the administration, but during the forum these were only vaguely touched on without specifics by some of the candidates. The longest tenured member of the School Board, Kieran Sharpe (17 years and counting), had one of the more refreshing statements in his opening remarks, acknowledging that there has been a shift away from a reliance on a strong administration and outside consultants toward a push “for greater citizen control” in the decisions of the board. Castillo and Sharpe are the two incumbents seeking re-election in November.
Mark Kaye, Jacob Radcliff, Phil Reitinger, Becky Smerdon and Erin Gill joined Kutchma as the roster of six challengers seeking election to the board for the first time. Their issues ranged from transparency in the dealings of the board (with worries expressed by some about how transparent the private-public educational partnership to develop the 34 acres of the Upper West End land will be (including its components for a new or expanded high school and expanded middle school), to concerns for the educational-residential-commercial mix that will result for that land, and the success of the school system in addressing the issues facing the bulk of students who are neither exceptionally gifted or with special needs.
But again, no candidate was asked or encouraged to directly or even indirectly speak to what any of his or her competing candidates said. So it was left to the audience, including a live TV audience and those following live Twitter feeds from the forum by a George Mason High student, to try to draw distinctions that could have been made far easier by simply asking the candidates to answer the same questions or to rebut others’ responses.
Among the comments made by the eight School Board candidates were the following:
Kaye expressed concern for what he said will be the secretive public-private process for the development of the Upper West End site, that it might become a “Tysons 3 with excessive tax abatements and density to appease developers. He said that offsetting salary challenges for teachers is the fact that Falls Church is a nice place to teach, that there should be added emphasis on internships and mentoring for students, that there should be more commercial development but not big apartment buildings in the City and that the needs of students “in the middle” are not being addressed sufficiently now.
Radcliff spoke ot the “embarrassment” of the Mt. Daniel situation (a potential rejection by Fairfax County of the City schools’ plans for expansion of that school site) saying it was due to “someone trusting an advisor too much,” that he would listen to faculty, administrators and student families, that he would “look for efficiencies” if more budget cuts were required, that he would seek “a big change” in how to counsel for college preparation, said there is a need for more empathy with the discontent among teachers about “being put upon by policies from the top, and noted that what will and will not be confidential about the Upper West End development is spelled out on the schools’ website.
Reitinger said a focus should be on teacher retention, and added opportunities for internships and community college courses, that environmental factors are important, whether formal LEED certification for new buildings or compliance, that “personalized learning” is the key to addressing needs of gifted and talented and students “in the middle,” that he’s been an active volunteer for the schools, including as a coach for Odyssey of the Mind, and that there should be more concern for transparency, and less closed meetings, in School Board affairs.
Castillo as the current chair of the School Board focused on the current high achievement levels of the schools, saying “we’re not perfect, but working on it,” said there should be “more empowerment of advisory committees,” that there should be more emphasis on dual use, including for community involvement, of the athletic fields, that the focus should be on “success for all students, that the schools have had high enrollment levels in the past, so that with growing enrollment now, “we’ve done this before and can do it again.” He said F.C. spends 40% less per student than Arlington, and at 2.7% the administrative component of smaller than for any other school system F.C.’s size.
Smerdon said that the focus should be on making sure all children get the best education, that studies show class sizes of 12-15 are optimal, that better means are needed to evaluate the performance of the superintendent, that the special education advisory board, on which she serves, should more to having liaisons to the PTAs of the schools at all levels, that she does not have in mind a “Plan B” for Mt. Daniel if Fairfax rejects the current proposal, that technology is vital in education but “as a tool and not a replacement for good instruction, that there are “achievement gaps” that need to be addressed, and that “more can be done with less.”
Sharpe spoke of the current level of cooperation between the schools and the City government though joint committees such as the “Gang of Eight,” that he advocated for “use of growth measures” over simple SOL results in the past, that he is a founder of Homestretch, a very successful program to address homelessness ,and the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, that he is optimistic about the future for the City and the schools and “we can be a pioneer in education” as “we have been in integrating our schools and the introduction of the International Baccalaureate and now IB at all levels, and moving to year-round educational calendar
Gill stressed that even with “zero growth,” the school building facilities will be to be expanded and renovated, and that 2.3% enrollment growth last year was not “explosive.” She said she has no fear that the Upper West End land will become a “Tysons 3,” and that as a community “we are all in this together.” that if there are any barriers of all students to extracurricular activities that they should be overcome, that consideration should be given to some later school start times, that with transparency as the “buzz word” of this campaign that “the information is out there and there needs to be better communication and that, “as an attorney I know how to get high stakes work done,” adding, “We can always do better and will never stop trying.”
Kutchma said that the current high SAT results are with only 20 percent student involvement, that the focus should be “on each and every child.” that there needs to be more transparency on issues like the superintendent’s salary, that there should be more opportunities for creativity for teachers and input by teachers to the school board, that teachers are already under a lot of pressure and additional testing of them may not be the best idea, that the City is “growing too fast now,” and she would not want more housing units in the City, that commercial development on the Upper West End site,would create security issues for students, that there is not enough budget transparency and students “in the middle” are not getting enough attention.