As two new Manassas School Board members and a freshman member of the City Council get ready to take office after Tuesday’s election, some hope that fresh blood will bring a renewed focus on improving city schools.
Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R) ran unopposed in an election that saw 13 percent of registered voters, or about 2,730 residents, come to the polls — more than the past two election cycles, in 2010 and 2008.
Voters made the biggest changes on the School Board, giving newcomer Ilka V. Chavez 17.2 percent of the vote. She and fellow challenger Ellen M. Purdy knocked off incumbents Kermit Holmes Dance and R.J. “Jack” McGee among seven candidates for four spots.
Board Chairman Scott M. Albrecht and member Arthur P. Bushnell retained their seats.
For City Council, the Republican-backed ticket of incumbents Mark D. Wolfe and Jonathan L. Way along with Ian T. Lovejoy took the three council spots against independent Jerry Carman and Democrat Patricia E. Richie-Folks.
Chavez will be the board’s only fluent Spanish speaker, something that helped her in campaigning in a school system that has a large Latino population. Chavez grew up as a “Canal Zone brat” in Panama, she said, attending U.S. Defense Department schools.
Chavez said that the school system has struggled to bring in Latino parents to understand the goals of the system and encourage their children. She said she reached out to Latino churches and businesses during her campaign and plans to do more.
“I’m looking to tell them they need to be a part of this,” said Chavez, 47, a Department of Health and Human Services employee. “We really have to work together, and I think it can be done.”
About half of the students in Manassas come from low-income families and 41 percent struggle with English — among the most vexing issues in U.S. education. The Washington Post recently reported on efforts in neighboring Manassas Park to deal with those issues, as well as new Osbourn High School Principal John Werner’s initial efforts this year.
The most immediate task for School Board members will be to choose a new superintendent. Gail Pope, who arrived in 2006, is stepping down from the post in June, and city leaders say choosing an effective new leader is crucial.
Chavez said she hopes the School Board will wait for new members to join the board at the beginning of July before selecting Pope’s successor.
But Albrecht said that if the School Board keeps its schedule, a new superintendent will be in place by the end of June. “We couldn’t let the elections drive our schedule,” he said. “What’s most important is having a leader in place as soon as we can.”
Lovejoy said in an interview that “citizens are looking for change . . . and that’s been reflected in the polls.”
He said that while he has other goals — including encouraging economic development in Manassas — schools are the “undeniable” top priority for city leaders.
Parrish said that city leaders have been focused more on school issues over the past year. A committee called Education Forward — made up of three School Board and three City Council members — has been looking for solutions. Almost a year later, those solutions, and the prospect of about $250,000 to fund them, have not materialized.
“I’d like to see it end,” Parrish said of the committee. “That doesn’t mean I want communication to end, but I want to be very careful to acknowledge the responsibility . . . of the School Board.”
The School Board has also asked for $3 million to build a center for administrators as well as money to replace aging Baldwin Elementary School. A new elementary school would probably cost about $30 million, Albrecht said. But without detailed plans, council members have rejected those requests.