News

School Board Candidates & Falls Church’s Future

To all the candidates who have bravely stepped forward to run for the seats on the Falls Church City Council and School Board that are being contested in the Nov. 3 election, the News-Press offered an opportunity to respond to a series of questions centered on visions for the future direction of our Little City.

We are delighted that 13 candidates – five for the City Council and eight for the School Board – responded in a prompt manner. Alphabetically, here’s what the School Board candidates gave us (Council candidate responses can be found here):

 


Justin Castillo

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

I’m seeking re-election for three reasons:

1. The schools help to make Falls Church City a great place; I want to preserve this legacy for future generations.

2. My wife Ruth Ann I have seen our kids journey from Mt. Daniel through George Mason HS. My experience as a parent and a School Board member gives me the ability to maintain our great schools.

3. We strive to meet the needs of every student, which is why the Class of 2015 at George Mason HS had a 100% graduation rate.

The challenges: expand and update the high school and to meet the needs of every student.

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

The School Board’s job is to present the best, most cost-effective (but fully realized) budget that provides the high-quality K-12 education that the law requires and that we as a community support. The job of the City Council is to accept or reject the amount requested by the School Board; they can’t change line items. There always will be give and take, but ultimately, I believe the City Council ordinarily should approve the budget that we submit.

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

Because the request for proposals (RFP) is pending and I am already on the School Board, I’m not at liberty to say anything more about my expectations or opinions except that I look forward to receiving proposals to the RFP for a new/renovated/expanded educational Mary Ellen Henderson MS and George Mason HS and for economic development that will help to offset school construction costs and that will create a vibrant sense of place in the City. The right proposal (which must be approved by the voters) could be a game-changer for the City.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

The School Board and City Council have different and distinct functions. As a matter of sound governance, it’s important to keep those roles separate; otherwise we could create confusion and/or unfounded expectations among citizens about the respective role of the two bodies. That would be irresponsible. Accordingly, I don’t take a position on Mason Row as a candidate for re-election to the School Board.

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

Again, it would not be appropriate for me as a candidate for re-election to the School Board to comment, as this would not be within my role as a member of the School Board. To suggest otherwise could be misleading.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

It’s an honor serve the community on the School Board. It’s given me the chance to use and to hone the skills I’ve learned as a lawyer, an adjunct professor, a 20-year City resident and the parent of four kids (three of whom have gone from Mt. Daniel through George Mason). Thanks to FCCPS, they have become lifelong learners. Whether I continue past this upcoming term depends on several unknowns (e.g. health of my parents.). For now, my goal is to complete the expansion/renovation of the GMHS/MEH site in a way that benefits the City for generations.

 


Erin Gill

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

I believe we need a diversity of views on the School Board, including a parent with kids in the schools. My children are 1, 3, and 6 years old. They will attend all five of our City schools for the next 16 years. I have a vested interest in the long-term success and sustainability of our schools. I would like to see our administration turn the job of construction planning and management over to experts and return their focus to educating our students. I also am concerned that we are losing great teachers to neighboring districts over issues that go beyond compensation.

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

Yes. Our schools are already doing more with less. School funding as a percentage of overall City revenue has remained constant despite rising enrollment, increasing fixed costs, and critical facilities needs. Furthermore, even when we “fully fund” our schools, we don’t fully fund our schools. There is always a list of needs that goes unfunded. Many of those needs are made up by our PTAs, the FCEF, businesses, and other community members. I do think we can spend our funds more efficiently and effectively. Our City was founded around great schools, and we must continue to support them.

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

I am open to exploring all of the options for developing the GM/MEH campus. If we determine that we must sell or lease ten of those acres for commercial development to pay for a new high school, I would like to see us engage in a project that is complementary to our schools. We should retain as much greenspace as possible on the campus and ensure that it is a complex our entire community can enjoy. I strongly support putting in a swimming pool and working with our Parks Department to turn it into a revenue-generating resource.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

I support the Mason Row project, with reservations. I would like to see the land developed in a way that provides more retail and dining options and acts as another gathering space for our community. My main concern with Mason Row, and the issue I would face on the School Board, is how the schools will accommodate the children and families who will be attracted to the proposed apartments. If Mason Row is approved, we should immediately begin to project and plan for the increased enrollment. My kids would like me to add: “Save a spot for Lazy Sundae!”

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

Small area plans are great but only if they connect into a greater “whole area plan” for the City. My family moved to Falls Church City from New York City because we were seeking a walkable, pedestrian-friendly town with great schools. The Little City and The City are two vastly different places, but they both have passionate residents and unique neighborhoods. I would like to see our City Council move beyond the small area plans and work to create a plan that better unites and connects all of our neighborhoods.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

If I am elected, I would be open to running for reelection in the future, but I have no plans to do so at this time. Ask me again in three years!

 


Mark Kaye

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

My concern for the schools and absence of school board leadership and direction has compelled me to run for office. The board has failed: Mt. Daniel expansion debacle, cost overruns at Thackrey, and costly delay at TJ. Standardized test scores at TJ and MEH are worrisome. A number of parents point out that many kids in the middle are overlooked. Kids with disabilities, English language learners and others are not thriving in our schools. The purchase of Apple Watches by administrators is symbolic of a system with no leadership. Our tax dollars are not benefiting our kids.

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

The City Council should consider supporting full funding under conditions: the schools must have transparent budgets supported by data; metrics on performance; accountability; finally, balance the needs of the schools against the needs of the entire City. We must consider the City as a whole. Constant real estate tax increases will eventually harm home values. We need a more realistic balance in our budgets. I believe in our schools – and want to make sure they exist for future generations.

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

We must have Citizen driven development that benefits the schools & City – and maintains the scale and livability of the Little City. We do not need a “Tysons III” developer driven project. The City is a mere 2.2 sq. miles and green space is scarce. A private public partnership is not good for us. PPPs are secretive and non-transparent; the voters will never know the financial details of any deal with a developer. We must conserve the uniqueness of the City. We need the right type of development that will enhance the viability of the City.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

I want development – but not the type envisioned with Mason Row. We need a moratorium on MUDs until we have a plan. MUDs generate 1/3 of the growth in school kids but do not pay for infrastructure expansion in any significant manner (new schools, libraries, etc.). We are adding thousands of new residents without considering the impact on the quality of life and unique character of the City. The impact of MUDs will be higher real estate taxes. Commercial and retail growth is desired. MUDs are not good for the financial sustainability of the City.

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

The current plans seem reasonable since they were crafted with input by citizens. The community involvement seems substantial. However, what is actually happening is contrary to these plans. We envisioned more commercial/retail for downtown that fits with the scale and character of the City – we should not allow developers to drive MUDs. The MUDs are not generating enough significant tax revenue to pay for new schools, parks, libraries, rec centers, etc. We need to return to the original plans.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

Absolutely. I have owned and lived in the same home in FCC for 15 years. I moved here with my son because of the schools and character of the City. My son attended the Falls Church City schools from 2nd grade to graduation from GMHS (2014). I believe in the schools and know we can do better. I intend to stay and add to the growth of the schools and Little City.

 


Alison Kutchma

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

I am deeply passionate about improving our schools for all learners. I seek a real transparent and accountable budget process. I am concerned about the growing demands on the taxpayer to fund our schools while at the same time observing the school board review the budget figures over simple hand-outs and require no line by line cost accounting or program analysis with real data tied to educational outcomes for our children. They deliberated spending more than $45 million based on a simple handout with no justifications with real data. I need accountability for my tax dollars.

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

The school budget is the foundation of our schools. It embodies the educational priorities of not only the school district but the community as a whole. What does full funding mean when members vote on a budget without the knowledge of the effectiveness of the programs we finance. We need to ensure that our educational dollars are going for educational purposes. The board did not share with the community their intention to give the Superintendent an additional $25,000 in tax free dollars this past September on top of her base salary of $212,000, $8,400 car allowance. We need budget transparency.

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

Stop. Pause. This is one of them most important decisions we will make as a community. I am uncomfortable with the rush to send out the RFP and the lack of transparency. Building more apartments on this site makes no sense at all because we would only be increasing the demands on our already overcrowded schools that we can barely afford now. We need to let the educational needs of our children and affordability drive this process. We also need to really make time to listen to teachers and community before we start picking out the paint colors.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

As a school board candidate I will not be voting on this. However as a taxpayer that listens to the current school board say how “cash strapped” we are on the school side, while I see the city side having to wait for money to fund basic community needs, I would have reservations. While apartment dwellers don’t lead the list in why our schools are bursting at the seams, more attractive residential units in one of the best school districts in the county will attract more students. This project will change our little city forever.

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

I have not participated in these discussions but I do hope that the separate plans are consistent with an overall and cohesive vision for what we want Falls Church to look and feel like moving forward. In the 13 years I have lived here, I do sometimes wonder if we have or wish to have an architectural standard/vision for FC. I do not want to see a disjointed patchwork of towering developments. We are such a special historical town and I hope to see that maintained.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

Yes. I have been advocating for the educational needs of students with learning disabilities for the last 18 years. I am passionate about collaborating with teachers and staff about improving educational outcomes for students and I will continue to do so no matter the outcome on November 3rd.

 


Jacob Radcliff

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

I am fortunate enough to be a stay at home father to my two kids, and with my youngest entering kindergarten I have the time to commit to improving our schools. This next board will likely decide how the GMHS/MEH buildout and renovation will be built and financed, and I have the skills, experience and leadership ability our City needs to diligently address the new building project and all issues affecting the School Board. As a manager, I am detail oriented and I strive to provide others with the agency and support they need to thrive.

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

In a word, yes. Our schools reflect our values as a community and are the primary reason people want to live here. As a member of the School Board, I intend to work with our sole employee, the Superintendent, to manage and scrutinize our proposed budget to bring the best possible education to our students. I also intend to work collaboratively with the City Council during the budget approval process.

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

We are building a school of the future, and how the new campus will take shape will be vetted by the community. If elected, it will be my responsibility to review responses to the RFP issued to private developers. I will be able to contribute extensively in this process, particularly with respect to the financial structure of the deal and the short and long-term impact it will have on our City’s financial health.

I look forward to reviewing the proposals. Considering the size of this project, I’d like to see a pool at the site made available for community use.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

This land, which extends from West and Broad (the Sunoco station) all the way to St. James, could generate much more tax revenue, and perhaps also capital, for the City if developed. The process for deciding what that development should look like is not within the purview of the School Board.

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

I like the new West Park! I may try to teach my kids to skate there.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

I may, but it would most likely be for re-election to the School Board. Working in service of our schools, and continuing to improve them, is an opportunity to serve in a very personally rewarding way, and I am grateful to this community for considering me for a School Board position. www.jacobradcliff.org.

 


Philip Reitinger

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

I want to serve on the School Board because I care about our schools, and I have the experience to help. I am a former government and private sector executive, with a background in technology. I understand the problems with managing large organizations because I have done so. My key issues are: improving our use of technology, and protecting kids online; retaining great teachers; engaging parents and taxpayers about our schools and plans for their future; and strengthening school management and providing fiscal accountability – funding a new George Mason high school and larger Mt. Daniel elementary school while protecting taxpayers.

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

Yes. Great schools are a foundation of our community. However, it is up to the School Board and administration to spend money carefully, and treat the taxpayers’ dollars as their own. That hasn’t always happened. More effective oversight by the School Board, and better planning by the administration and the Board, would help hold costs down.

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

The best approach is to build a new high school using significant private investment that also creates a new “place” for the City – facilities that will benefit all City residents – while minimizing taxes. Any development should maximize greenspace through undergrounding of facilities, more vertical development, and “green” rooftops. Whether all this is possible – whether development proposals will justify using up to 10 acres of City and School land for commercial purposes – will have to be carefully examined. To this end, the City Council and School Board must allow for as much public participation as is possible under the law.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

Whether to approve the Mason Row project is a City Council issue. If the project is approved, the job of the School Board will be to provide an excellent education to the new students that the project is expected to produce, along with other students from the City. That said, as a citizen I support smart development that diversifies our tax base to reduce the burden on City taxpayers.

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

I don’t believe the City’s small area plans are the domain of the School Board, with one exception. The School Board should focus on school issues. If elected, that is what I will do. The exception is school facilities, and if Mt. Daniel cannot be expanded, additional school facilities within the City may be necessary, and City plans should take that possibility into account.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

If I am elected, and represent people well, then I would expect to run for a second term.

 


Kieran Sharpe

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

To assure that our schools continue in the role of pioneer driving constantly for world-class education, a role that provides the engine of the city’s prosperity.

When deciding what commercial development may occur at the GM/MEH site, keep the Whittier experience in mind. Like GM/MEH, Whittier involved commercial use of about 10 acres otherwise available for schools. Before committing to such use at GM/MEH, take care to locate other sites for school use, especially ones with less traffic and lower cost, which would be more suitable for schools.

To rebuild trust within the city and with Fairfax County.

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

Yes. While collaboration and transparency can always be improved, Falls Church schools do not take an unfair share of local taxes. Falls Church’s school-age population is a higher percentage of total population than in Arlington or Fairfax – nearly twice as high as Arlington. However, our spending on schools is only about the same percentage of total budget as in Arlington and less than it is in Fairfax.

The percentage of Falls Church land that is commercial is about the same as in Fairfax County (23 percent) but less than in Arlington (30 percent) and far less than in Fairfax City (35 percent).

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

Set a minimum of 1,000 students for GM and 800 for MEH while requiring the developer to show how we could expand from that level. Choose school designs consistent with inquiry-based learning (not bound to an industrial model). Look for a higher level of purely commercial use than has been typical of recent “mixed use” projects, especially as the commercial portion gets closer to the Metro. Look to VPIS and the Environmental Services Council to assess how much greenspace to include. Build a bike/pedestrian bridge across Haycock, and use natural turf with high maintenance for all athletic fields.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

Not if it has more than 200 residential units and a hotel. Such a level of persons living on that site, plus the attractive commercial uses, would add too much traffic and other burdens to that area.

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

The area plans are a very sound approach to development. They encourage close cooperation among the area’s businesses and neighbors. I think the approach can both stimulate development and help assure its high quality.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

Probably not.

If I win, I will not declare victory. I will not shut out those who have different views. Instead, I will reach out to heal the divisions and to be responsive to the full diversity that is Falls Church. I’ll seek to lead us in ways that encourage everyone to participate and contribute so that Falls Church can achieve its full potential. And I’ll seek to fully achieve world-class education, so that all FCCPS students can achieve their full potential.

 


Becky Smerdon

What key issues have caused you to seek this office?

Although a vast majority of our students score proficient on standardized tests, graduate high school, and go on to college, many do not – particularly, students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and economically disadvantaged students. In addition, we have a lot of students in the middle who are just getting by. Improvement must start with a set of clear, measurable goals that we hold our leadership accountable for meeting. I am running to work with board members to develop such goals and monitor and communicate progress on them so we may better support our educators and students. 

Should the City Council approve full funding of City Schools? Why or why not?

Approval of full funding as a matter of course? No. First and foremost, the school board must to do a thorough analysis of the budget, our goals, and our return on investment. The budget we put forward should be detailed, thoroughly annotated and strongly justified with data. I would then fully expect a thorough review by the City Council and potential need for revision. It’s critical to have many checks and balances and opportunities to ask questions and raise issues. I believe strongly we should invest in education and I believe we must be prudent stewards of public funds. 

How should the City develop the new 34.6 acres campus that contains George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson schools?

I participated in the first visioning meeting and I love the idea of bike trails, swimming pool, and a modern high school. But, I do not agree with the process (non-transparent due to Public-Private-Partnership) and I am not convinced that these amenities can be provided without having a significant and perhaps detrimental financial impact on our city and our citizens. I also want to hear about our educational vision for the future and how a new structure will support that. Therefore, I believe the city should first develop a sound, community-driven, transparent process for both considering and developing the space.

Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

I live by Mason Row and because I walk everywhere, I would love to have more interesting places to walk to in my neighborhood. Having said that, I, like other candidates believe that we are moving too fast with too little information and community input. How will the project impact capital costs of running the city? Running the school? What will our already congested traffic look like after this development? Similar to the previous question, I believe we need to start with a sound, community-driven, transparent process for the project. 

What about the City’s small area plans rolled out to date do you support or oppose most strongly?

My understanding of the first small area plans is that they involved the community and reflected city priorities. As I review development plans that have been put forward thus far, I have been struck by the lack of community involvement and it is not clear to me that the plans reflect city priorities. Indeed, I have been struck most by the lack of coherence in the small area plans moving forward. Not only am I concerned about how each plan will impact the city, I am also concerned about how these discrete pieces will reflect our vision for our city.

If you win this November, do you see yourself running again in the future?

Absolutely. I became active in the school system as soon as I moved here and plan to remain active whether I win or lose in November.