A sea change is underway on Falls Church City’s School Board. There are twice as many candidates as there are available vacancies to be filled this fall after a tense year where the school system dealt with Covid-19-related closures and the renaming of two schools.
Four seats are opening up on the school board this fall due to a mix of resignations and incumbents passing on reelection.
Longtime board member Lawrence Webb resigned around the new year because he was moving out of the City, and former board vice chair Shawna Russell stepped down a month later over personal reasons. Sonia Ruiz-Bolanos and Edwin Henderson II, the two people whom the board appointed after those departures, have decided not to launch their own candidacy.
Current board chair Shannon Litton and former board chair Greg Anderson will not be looking to retain their seats come November either, as both announced they will not hit the campaign trail again.
That’s opened the door for eight new candidates to compete for the City’s votes, and each brings a mix of professional, volunteer and even previous experience in education to their candidacies. What they all do share, however, is a desire to improve communication about the board’s decisions to the community they serve.
“Having a more open and transparent process for both teachers and parents would really be beneficial for our children. And that’s obviously what’s the most important aspect of this,” said Lori Silverman, who’s the mother of a rising kindergartener and third grader and runs her own political consulting firm. “That’s really important in order to get past this past year, and to move forward.”
Silverman said she is a consensus builder and a strong listener who can bring people together. She’s done it before in her career, so she plans on taking that skillset to the school board.
Adam Riedel, who works in Arlington County’s Environmental Management Office, is also looking to parlay his work experience into his pitch for the school board. The father of twin girls entering the third grade feels that the school board should return to its roots of being a regulatory body that will help it retain the school system’s appeal.
“Really focusing on just sort of those administrative, almost boring aspects [of the board’s work], and just making sure our schools maintain the high quality that they’ve had,” Riedel said. “I know there was a lot of frustration about shifting metrics and explanations [for reopening], and I certainly share those frustrations, but I think we really need to just look ahead as we exit the pandemic.”
Some candidates are products of the frustration with the school board’s handling of both the reopening and renaming.
Courtney Mooney works in the medical field, is a basketball coach and is the parent of a rising fifth grader. After witnessing the school’s handling of the reopening process, she felt that kids’ interests weren’t being put first because parents didn’t have a unified way of sharing their opinions.
To Mooney, the board deferred too much to the superintendent’s judgment, and didn’t allow for an “interactive, constructive relationship” where the board could offer their own insights on the topic. She is one of the founding members of Falls Church City Parents 4 Schools, a group of parents who lobbied the school system to reopen for full-time, in-person learning for families who wanted it during the spring.
“I don’t think it was an intentional thing, but unfortunately, there wasn’t that clear voice from the parents saying, ‘This is what we want. This is what we need. This is what’s happening with our children,’” Mooney said. “The thing that broke my heart the most was hearing from so many families who said they felt so alone.”Sharpening up the process for how decisions are made is the focal point of Ilya Shapiro’s campaign.
A director at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, Shapiro was first caught off guard by the school board’s unanimous vote to change the names of George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary, even after two surveys showed a majority of respondents did not favor doing so. He thinks that decision, as well as the reopening ones, are why people have lost confidence in the school board.
Shapiro threw his hat in the ring once Webb and then Russell left the board, but didn’t think he fit the “go along to get along” mold the board was looking for. With his youngest son starting kindergarten this upcoming year, he believes he can provide a good counterweight to the board’s current makeup.
“I’m not campaigning on radical change in substance; I’m campaigning on radical change in process.” Shapiro said, who added he wants to explain every decision he makes on his Facebook page after the fact. “I don’t think we should be [reviewing] changes on how money is spent or the curriculum because our schools have worked. They’re successful.”
Changes to curriculum were also on candidates’ radars, particularly possible changes to Virginia’s math curriculum.
The state updates its course materials every seven years, and a presentation on the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative was shown to the board during its May 25 work session as a preview of what’s being looked at.
But VMPI architects at the state level have provided an unclear message about what the revisions seek to accomplish. Particularly, there’s been some confusion over whether it would do away with “tracking,” or allowing students with differing abilities to take courses (such as advanced or remedial) at their skill level until they complete tenth grade.
State Superintendent Dr. James Lane told the Washington Post last month that “It is just a thought process right now” as the state seeks feedback on its ideas prior to being codified by the 2023-24 school year. Kathleen Tysse, a former teacher and mother of four — with the oldest being a 13-year-old and the youngest a seven-year-old — believes there’s no threat to the math curriculum that’s still in its early stages.
She previously served as the Falls Church Elementary PTA president, was on the Gifted Advisory Committee as well as the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee last summer and is a former member of the Calendar Committee. Tysse acknowledged there needs to be a lot of healing from the past year, but also commended the board and the superintendent for “landing the plane while it was on fire” in regards to reopening.
If she were to take office come January, she’d want to focus on making use of the wealth of resources Falls Church has to offer.
“Literacy is a real passion of mine, along with social justice, so I think we do have an obligation to leverage the advantages we have in our community, to lift students up and make sure we’re really taking full advantage of all the ways we’re very fortunate in our town,” Tysse said.
She’s not the only former teacher in the race. Tate Gould has over 25 years of experience in the classroom, primarily as a high school math teacher, but also at the middle school level before starting his company, AnLar.
While understanding the world of both teachers and parents, since he has two kids in the school system, Gould really believes his understanding of data is what can make a difference on the board.
“For the company that I founded, we do a lot around data, and provide data back to schools, districts [and] the states and how to use that data to make better decisions,” Gould said. “That aspect also is just not just the policy discussions, but also that data discussions, I think is something that would be cool, and hopefully provide that experience for people on the school board.”
Another data savant is Jerrod Anderson. A charter member of the FCCP4S along with Mooney, Anderson is a statistician for Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality whose son is entering the first grade. The thrust of his campaign is implementing a procedure that makes sense from all angles, and can be clearly communicated to everyone affected by the action.
“I can put an emphasis on systematic decision making, thinking about how all policies need to be goal oriented and informed by data, and then regularly reevaluated,” Anderson said. “It’s important, especially for a city as small as Falls Church, that school board members are responsive to the concerns of all stakeholders, even if they don’t agree with the opinions of those stakeholders.”
David Ortiz works as an engineer for his day job. His experiences in both navigating complex choices board and panels have to make while also keeping an eye to the long-term direction they’re going in is something he believes will support his candidacy.
“I want to make sure we’re following through on what we’re investing in — our schools,” Ortiz said. “That we’re all helping children attending the schools to achieve their goals, and that we prepare our schools for the future by building upon their successes.”