Candidates for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Braddock District seat clashed Thursday night over school funding, highway maintenance, solar power and other issues in the eighth of 10 scheduled debates.
Hosted by the Ravensworth Farm Civic Association, the forum covered familiar ground in the closely watched race but included a few lively exchanges among Supervisor John C. Cook (R), challenger Janet S. Oleszek (D) and independent candidate Carey C. Campbell.
Cook, an attorney and former president of the Kings Park Civic Association, emphasized his intimacy with neighborhood concerns about community pools, road-striping, and other hyper-local issues. He expressed pride in hosting seminars that trained more than 150 community leaders and convening groups such as a citizens committee that is planning a new connector road onto the George Mason University campus.
“The job of the district supervisor is to take care of the neighborhoods,” Cook, 48, said. “That’s just a key part of the job.”
He called for the county to address its chronic transportation problems by taking control of its local roadways from the state
And he emphasized his conservative aversion to tax hikes.
“I think what we have to do is what every business, what every family does, which is live within our means,” said Cook, who has voted with Republicans against two budgets because they effectively raised levies on taxpayers.
Oleszek, who served a term as an at-large school board member, returned often to the subject of education, saying she would spend more on teachers to maintain the county’s reputation for academic excellence. She suggested she would invest more in public safety and roads, and she criticized Cook’s vote against the two budgets.
Oleszek, 64, argued that Braddock would benefit by returning its seat to a Democrat, who would join the board’s 7-3 Democratic majority. And she seemed to take a poke at Cook, who splits his time between the board and a law practice, saying: “I will be your full-time supervisor.”
Campbell, an Air Force veteran who is running as a member of the Independent Green Party, reiterated his call for more investment in mass transit and solar energy.
“The solution is more trains, less traffic,” Campbell, 55, said.
Yet Campbell also described himself as the most fiscally conservative candidate of the three. He urged reductions in the property tax rate and school funding, which now absorbs about 53 percent of county tax revenues.
“I believe there are places we can cut there,” he said.
The Braddock District supervisor race has been one of the most closely watched this year in county political circles because of its competitive match-up and the district’s reputation as a bellwether. The seat had been held by Sharon S. Bulova, a Democrat, for more than two decades until she became chairman. Cook won her seat in a special election in 2009.
Thursday’s debate, held at the Ravensworth Elementary School, drew about 40 people who were invited to submit written questions for the candidates. One question asked whether the candidates would raise or cut school funding.
“Labor is the largest cost of the schools – the labor in terms of teachers’ salaries and benefits and pay,” Oleszek replied. “So, you know very well that if you want smaller classrooms, smaller student ratios, more services, the only way that can be accomplished is by providing more teachers. There is no other way to do that.”
Cook, noting that he has six children, said schools were his top priority in shaping a budget. He noted that schools have been spared the reductions that other agencies took as the county struggled to close budget gaps. And he said he would support giving schools more money in the coming fiscal year so that teachers receive raises. But he also sounded cautious.
“It doesn’t mean we have unlimited funds,” he said, adding that the district should find further savings in administration. And he criticized Oleszek’s support five years ago as a school board member to build a new, $63 million administration building on Gatehouse Road in Falls Church, calling it a “Taj Mahal.”
Oleszek defended her school board vote, saying the new administrative building saved taxpayers money — about $47 million over 30 years, school officials said at the time.
Campbell, an accountant who has co-chaired the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations’ budget committee, called for a 2.5 percent cut in the money the board directs to Fairfax County Public Schools each year. He said administrative costs and spending on high-tech luxuries such as flat-screen televisions helped push school funding to as high as 54 percent of revenues a few years ago.
“Now they told us a couple years ago that we couldn’t [cut school funding],” Campbell said. “And we did.”
In response to a question about transportation, Cook argued that the county should take control of its local streets and roads, a responsibility that now belongs to the state. That would also have to mean jiggering the formula used to pay for road maintenance, he said.
“We’re the richest county on the face of the earth. We don’t need to have potholes,” Cook said. “We’ll fix them ourselves.”
But Oleszek said she opposed taking control of local roads because county residents could end up paying more in taxes. “If you want double taxation, that’s just what you get,” she said.
Explaining further, Benjamin A. Tribbett, her campaign chairman, said Friday that county staff has determined that the state would not return enough money to the county to handle its road maintenance and so county residents would likely have to shell out more in taxes.
“This idea that you can rely on Virginia for roads funding – Janet just thinks that’s ridiculous,” he said.
As the campaign heads toward the final week before the election, Cook flashed some temper Thursday toward Campbell, who has needled him throughout the campaign as the “borrow-and-spend incumbent.”
“It’s not fiscally conservative to call for billions of dollars of capital expense to build trains we can’t support and a fantasy to support them with solar panels,” Cook told Campbell. “The numbers don’t add up, and you’re the accountant. . .So solar’s a great thing. . .but Mr. Campbell, I just think you’re selling a bill of goods that doesn’t work.”
Oleszek, meanwhile, faltered in some responses, including a rambling reply to a question that invited candidates to describe what single policy each would change. Oleszek said she would restore library funding, saying the closure of some branches on Sundays because of budget cuts is a “threat to democracy.”
Campbell, as he has before, turned in a performance that was at times bizarre. More than once he said his wife has tried to put a muzzle on him because of his tendency to say provocative things.
As the forum drew to a close, Campbell repeatedly asked the timekeeper how much time was left during his closing statement because he apparently had run out of things to say. With seconds to go, he recited a snippet of Robert Frost’s poetry.
“The woods are lovely dark and deep,” Campbell began. “Everyone remember this?”
“Time,” the judge called, triggering laughter in the room.