Fairfax School Board races: Change vs. continuity

September 23, 2011

A day after Superintendent Jack D. Dale announced plans to retire, several candidates in the wide-open race for Fairfax County School Board said Friday that the fall election will still hinge on the question of change vs. continuity.

The race had been shaping up as a referendum on leadership of the Washington region’s largest school system during Dale’s seven-year tenure, a period in which student achievement rose but many parents expressed increasing frustration with how the superintendent and the board handled issues such as budget cuts, boundary changes, and overhauls of stringent discipline and grading policies.

Dale said Thursday that he plans to step down when his contract ends in 2013. Some change-minded candidates called the timing of the announcement a politically motivated effort to distract voters from their discontent. These challengers said their primary goal is to replace a board that they contend has not listened to parents and teachers and has failed to adequately vet the superintendent’s policies.

“I don’t think that voters are going to be tricked into thinking that because Jack Dale has announced that he is not going to seek a new contract with Fairfax County public schools that they can just forget about the problems that have arisen in the past five years,” said Louise Epstein, who is seeking to unseat Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville).

“They still need to elect a new School Board that will set the stage for a more responsive administration going forward,” Epstein said.

Strauss, who has served on the board since it shifted from an appointed to an elected body in the mid-1990s, is running in her first contested race since 1999. She said Thursday that Dale’s impending departure would give a new board time to get its footing before hiring a replacement and that her years of service would be vital to that process.

“I’ve done this before. I have been through three different superintendents and helped hire two,” Strauss said. “I think my experience is going to be very important in how one goes forward.”

Six of the board’s 12 incumbents are retiring, ensuring major turnover. The board race, though nominally nonpartisan, has long been influenced by endorsements from the two major political parties. No candidate has ever been elected without a Democratic or Republican endorsement, political observers say. Nine incumbents were endorsed by the Democratic Party, including Strauss, and three by the GOP. Epstein has a Republican endorsement.

This year, there is a new division emerging between candidates who want to shake up the 175,000-student system and those who generally support the current leadership.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in recent endorsements from the county’s two teacher associations. For the first time, the Fairfax Education Association, which has historically tended to align with Democrats, and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which has often backed Republicans, are supporting bipartisan slates composed largely of candidates promising change.

Michael Hairston, president of the FEA, said both teacher groups have similar complaints about the board.

“We’re looking for School Board members that will listen to teachers,” Hairston said. Right now, he said, “we’re on the front lines every day delivering instruction, and we’re not consulted.”

In the Dranesville race, the two teacher groups endorsed Epstein over Strauss. Their positions are also notable in the race for three at-large seats.

Board member Ilryong Moon (At Large) was the only Democratic-backed candidate to receive an endorsement from a teacher group, the FEA. Sheree Brown-Kaplan, a special education advocate backed by Republicans, won an FCFT endorsement.

Both teacher organizations endorsed Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, a Republican-backed candidate who advocates fiscal responsibility, and Steve Stuban, who has not received a partisan endorsement.

Stuban is the father of Nick Stuban, a football player who killed himself in January amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction. Nick Stuban’s suicide helped galvanize the community to press the school board for changes to discipline policies.

Dale initially defended the policies, and the Stubans’ story came to symbolize what critics have said is the superintendent’s — and the board’s — resistance to community input on a range of issues.

“The cumulative effect of some of the decisions this board has made in the last 18 months is that more and more people care,” Stuban said. “More and more people want to see this board changed.”

Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), who is not running for reelection, dismissed the idea that the county has been swept by a tide of dissatisfaction.

“Criticism is always going to drown out the good news because that’s the way life is,” he said. “I think most people in Fairfax County are very satisfied with the schools.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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