Pockets of Fairfax County have certainly been energized to vote by the chance to shape the county’s next school board. But like most down-ballot races in off-year elections, many voters hitting the polls today said — almost apologetically — that they voted according to party lines because they weren’t familiar with individual candidates.
“Unfortunately, I’ve relied on my Republican ballot a lot,” said Mary Ellen van Hout, a mother of four who lives in the Oak Hill neighborhood and votes in the Sully District. “I got here to vote, but I think I could have done a better research job” to figure out what various candidates stand for, she said.
Retired naval intelligence officer Robert DiPalma, 76, said on the way into the polls at Chantilly High that he didn’t know who he would vote for. “I don’t know what these people stand for,” he said.
A few minutes later, he exited the voting booth and said he had checked the box for Sully incumbent Kathy Smith — mostly because he was annoyed with the number of campaign phone calls he had received from her challenger, Sheila Ratnam.
Elsewhere, however, voters seemed motivated by the opportunity to shape the next board.
Voters arrived in a steady stream early Tuesday at Langley High School to cast ballots in the Dranesville school board race, one of the tightest contests in the county.
“The one thing that drew me here was the school board race,” said Regina Devlin, 55, a McLean resident and mother of three children who graduated from Fairfax schools. She said she supported incumbent Jane K. Strauss.
“We need her, because there’s a big turnover on the school board and without her I’m worried about what might happen,” said Devlin. Strauss’s critics have said that she is unresponsive to parent concerns, a charge Devlin -- a veteran of several PTAs -- dismissed. “She listens, she responds, she’s done that time and time again.”
Peter Sirh, a 43-year-old father of children in Fairfax schools, disagreed. He voted for Epstein, he said, in part because he was frustrated with Strauss’s vote last year to close his alma mater, Clifton Elementary. He said he wrote to Strauss expressing his disappointment and she was “dismissive.”
“I just feel it’s time for a change. The school board has become too entrenched,” Sirh said. “Ms. Strauss has been there for almost two decades.”
Few voters said they knew details about the at-large candidates, and many said they voted either with sample ballots handed out by political parties or according to advice offered by friends and other trusted sources.
“I’m somewhat tuned in, but I’m pretty much doing whatever my wife tells me,” said Steve Donovan, who pulled out a smart phone to check her recommendations: Republican-endorsed Sheree Brown-Kaplan, Democratic-endorsed Ilryong Moon, and Steve Stuban, who is running without a party endorsement.
Current school board member Sandy Evans, who is running unopposed for reelection in the Mason district, said whatever happens tonight, activists have succeeded in injecting new ideas into the school system.
The system’s discipline policy has remained a key issue throughout the campaign, and almost every school board candidate has spoken about the need to do a better job including parents, teachers and students in decision-making.
In addition, nearly every candidate has supported some ideas first floated by reform-minded board members and parent activists, including hiring an ombudsman to field concerns from parents and teachers and installing an independent auditor to evaluate programs and expenditures.
“I think we’ve changed the conversation,” said Evans, who was a parent activist working for later high school start times before she joined the board via special election in 2010. “That’s going to be important for the next four years with the new school board.”
For a full rundown of today’s races, click here.
This post has been updated.