On Nov. 8, Fairfax voters will choose three candidates to fill countywide “at large’’ seats on the school board. Seven people are running for those spots, and The Washington Post is publishing brief profiles of each of them.
The school board race is technically nonpartisan, but political parties have historically played a role.
Lolita Mancheno-Smoak is a Republican-backed candidate who, according to campaign finance reports, had by the end of September raised cash and in-kind contributions worth $75,470 — more than any other at-large candidate.
Lolita Mancheno-Smoak came to the campaign trail with a background in engineering and manufacturing, management consulting and college-level teaching.
She had served on the advisory council for Crisis Link, a Northern Virginia suicide-prevention hotline, and worked with at-risk teenagers while serving on the board of Hispanics Against Child Abuse and Neglect.
But she has no direct experience with Fairfax County Public Schools — a quality, she says, that will allow her to see issues and problems through unjaded eyes.
“I’ll definitely be a major change agent in that I’ll bring a different perspective,” said Mancheno-Smoak, 52. “But I come in fresh, so at this point I have zero biases.”
She does feel strongly that the school system should be more open to community input. And like many candidates this fall, she thinks the board should be more fiscally accountable and frugal — particularly with spending on central administration.
Unlike many other candidates, she has professional experience digging around in the budgets of large companies, looking for savings.
The school board must insist on “the efficient and effective use of your tax dollar,” she told the audience at a candidate forum held last month by the Korean American Association of Virginia and the Korea Times. “And we have to do it in a way that all the funding primarily goes to the classroom first.”
Mancheno-Smoak advocates establishing an independent, external audit and program evaluation team to scrub the school system’s budget for potential efficiencies.
It’s realistic to expect savings of 10 to 15 percent of the total $2.2 billion budget, she said. That’s about $330 million — approximately equal to the amount being spent on the entire central office except the bus fleet, according to an analysis by the watchdog group FairfaxCAPS.
“We have to go systemically and surgically through things,” she said. “It gets a little painful, because folks don’t want to hear that some of their programs need to be shut down, but if that’s what it takes, that’s what we need to do.”
Mancheno-Smoak is among a raft of change-minded candidates who accuse the school board of ceding too much power to the superintendent. She would like to restore authority to the board.
A native of Ecuador who came to the United States at age 4, she says she aims to represent minority communities and parents who — either because they don’t speak English or because they are busy working two jobs — have not traditionally been part of the public conversation about schools.
“We do have silent voices in this community that will never get heard unless there is someone on the board that will raise the critical issues and bring them to light,” she said.
As an adjunct business professor at Strayer University and the University of Phoenix, she said, she sees far too many high school graduates who lack key skills in math, reading and writing.
“I’m not pointing fingers, but there is something wrong and we need to do something,” she said. “The only way to do that is to study the problem and take action.”
Mancheno-Smoak, who is married and has four grown stepchildren, settled in Fairfax about 13 years ago when she traded private-sector employment for an executive position with the U.S. Postal Service.
Her most recent job was with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq, which examines federal expenditures on reconstruction projects in that country.
Mancheno-Smoak holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Columbia University and the University of Miami, respectively. She also has a doctorate in business administration from Nova Southeastern University.
Other at-large candidates are Republican-backed Sheree Brown-Kaplan, Lin-Dai Kendall; Democratic-backed Ilryong Moon, Ryan McElveen and Ted Velkoff; and Steve Stuban, who is running without a partisan endorsement.