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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 11/08/2011

Fairfax voters head to polls to choose new school board

Fairfax residents head to the polls today to elect a new school board, ending one of the most closely watched and hotly contested local campaigns in recent memory.

Half the board’s 12 members are retiring, ensuring substantial turnover. Most of the other incumbents face challengers, raising the possibility that voters could install an almost entirely new panel to lead one of the nation’s largest and highest-performing school systems.

Though tinged with partisan politics, the election has been less a showdown between Democrats and Republicans than between candidates who defend the current system and those who say it needs a major overhaul.

Trust between community members and school leaders frayed in recent years as the board waded into high-profile battles over boundary changes, high school start times and grading and discipline policies.

Reform-minded candidates have called for a board that keeps a shorter leash on the superintendent and advocates more strenuously on behalf of parents, teachers and taxpayers. Many have suggested that funding for popular initiatives — such as raising teacher pay and decreasing class size — could be found by dramatically cutting central administration.

Incumbents running in contested races, meanwhile, have pointed to rising student performance and a narrowing achievement gap as evidence that the school system is basically on the right track.

But even with all the energy and excitement that this year’s contest has generated, it’s unclear how widespread the discontentedness is — and how many voters will be motivated to turn out. If history is any guide, the outcome could come down to just a handful of votes.

Last time voters chose a new school board was in 2007. In the race for three at-large seats that year, third-place Jim Raney was elected over fourth-place Steve Hunt by just 1,363 votes.

The number of voters choosing school board candidates to represent each of the county’s nine districts was even tinier.

In Braddock four years ago, Tessie Wilson beat Liz Griffith by a mere 153 votes out of 22,785 votes cast.

The ballot then — much like now — featured no national or statewide candidates. Without that draw to the polls, only 33.3% of voters (201,787 people) showed up to cast a ballot.

(Compare that to the 2008 presidential election, when 78.7%, or more than 520,000 people, showed up.)

Races to watch after the jump.

Braddock

Democratic-backed Megan McLaughlin faces off against Republican-endorsed Nell Hurley in a notoriously hard-to-predict purple district.

Both are seen as change-minded candidates who would challenge Superintendent Jack D. Dale and — after Dale’s departure in 2013 — any future schools chief.

The race may be influenced by voter turnout for the hotly contested board of supervisors contest, in which Republican incumbent John Cook faces Democrat (and former school board member) Janet Oleszek.

Dranesville

Incumbent Jane K. Strauss tries to fend off a strong challenge from parent activist Louise Epstein in what has been perhaps the most pointed, personal and divisive race in the county.

Epstein has criticized Strauss’s voting record on a number of issues. A key issue has been the board veteran’s support for a staffing formula that sends more teachers to needy schools, leaving affluent schools in Dranesville with some of the highest class sizes in the county.

Sully

Republican-endorsed Sheila Ratnam has no previous experience with school policy or activism and had never been a PTA member before this year. But she’s running against Democratic incumbent Kathy Smith in a G.O.P.-leaning district. If voters are as frustrated with the school board as some activists claim, they could choose Ratnam’s fresh face over Smith’s experience.

At-Large

Seven candidates are running for three countywide seats — a wide open race whose results will do much to shape the character of the next board. Steve Stuban, whose son’s suicide in January has become a symbol for problems with the school system’s discipline code, is attempting to become the first candidate to win a school board seat without a party endorsement.

By  |  05:00 AM ET, 11/08/2011

Tags:  fairfax county election, fairfax county school board, fairfax county public schools

 
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