Snapshot of contested Fairfax School Board seats

October 30, 2011

In the race for Fairfax County School Board, voter concerns and candidate promises vary from place to place. But there is a consensus countywide that one of the most important issues is the selection of a successor to Superintendent Jack D. Dale after he retires in 2013.

Each of the 15 candidates for nine district seats in the Nov. 8 election says the next schools chief must be an excellent listener and communicator. Some say he or she must have a record of closing achievement gaps in diverse communities. Others want someone who can foster a culture in which teachers aren’t afraid to challenge policies.

And one candidate says the next chief shouldn’t be too fat.

“He’ll have to make a lot of public appearances,” said Braddock District hopeful Nell Hurley. Beyond serving as an excellent manager, she said, a superintendent also should model healthy habits for children and parents. “Somebody who’s terribly obese might not be the best person for that particular job.”

Weight discrimination in hiring is legal in every state but Michigan, said Rebecca Puhl, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Puhl said a handful of cities, including the District, prohibit such discrimination.

“A person’s body weight says nothing about their abilities, their accomplishments or their contributions to society,” she said. “We would never see this if we were talking about race or sexual orientation or gender, but with weight this remains acceptable and people do it automatically.”

Hurley’s opponent, Megan McLaughlin, said physical appearance should not be a factor in hiring. “Look at Chris Christie,” she said of the Republican governor of New Jersey. “He’s a very large man, and yet people adore him.”

Both Braddock candidates are considered change-minded activists who largely agree on key issues but have different styles and backgrounds. Democratic-endorsed McLaughlin helped lead the countywide Fairgrade campaign to ease a strict grading policy. Hurley, with Republican backing, has focused her efforts in Braddock, particularly at W.T. Woodson High.

Braddock is one of six contested districts. Here is a snapshot of campaigns in the other five. The races are technically nonpartisan, but parties have some influence. There are also three uncontested district races and separate campaigns for three at-large seats on the 12-member board.

The most heated district race is in Dranesville , where incumbent Jane K. Strauss faces a strong challenge from parent activist Louise Epstein.

In public debates, Republican-backed Epstein has charged that Strauss “supports the bureaucrats” and doesn’t listen to teachers and parents. Democratic-endorsed Strauss has emphasized her role in helping schools boost student achievement while navigating a difficult recession.

A key issue is a staffing formula that sends more teachers to needy schools and thus leaves schools in affluent Great Falls and McLean with somewhat larger classes. Strauss calls the formula essential for helping the most challenged students; Epstein proposes revising it to reduce crowding in Dranesville.

In Sully , incumbent Kathy L. Smith faces a challenger, Sheila Ratnam, but their campaigns have been more quiet.

Democratic-endorsed Smith said she believes many voters are happy with the schools as they are and value her years of board experience.

Ratnam is a self-described conservative running with a Republican endorsement in a Republican-leaning district. Ratnam, a newcomer who before this year had no experience in PTAs or school-policy activism, is hoping to take advantage of voters’ frustration with the current board.

In Mount Vernon, which includes some of the county’s most impoverished neighborhoods, Democratic-endorsed incumbent Daniel G. Storck is running against GOP-endorsed Michele Nellenbach, a PTA president and former Capitol Hill aide.

The candidates say voters are concerned about cuts to initiatives meant to boost the achievement of poor children and nonnative English speakers. Schools are no longer able to offer a longer school day once a week, for example, nor are they able to operate on a modified, year-round calendar.

Also at issue is whether schools should provide mid-level honors courses for students who fall between standard-level and Advanced Placement classes; both candidates have supported that idea.

In Hunter Mill , Pat Hynes and Nancy Linton are vying to replace outgoing incumbent Stuart D. Gibson. The two candidates, nearly indistinguishable on hot-button issues, bring different backgrounds to the race.

Democratic-endorsed Hynes, who trained as a lawyer, left the legal profession after having kids and has been a Fairfax County elementary school teacher for nine years. Republican-endorsed Linton is a licensed counselor whose experience includes work at an alternative school in Indiana and as a federal-agency workplace counselor.

Springfield candidates Elizabeth Schultz and John Wittman are running in a district where some voters are still smarting from a board decision to close Clifton Elementary.

Schultz, a leader in efforts to keep the school open, has said she would revisit the matter. Wittman has said he would not.

The two candidates also disagree on how to take care of a backlog of facilities construction and renovation, a key question in a district where many want to see West Springfield High fully upgraded by its 50th anniversary in 2016.

Democratic-backed Wittman wants to speed up work by getting the Board of Supervisors to lift a $155 million annual cap on capital improvements for schools. GOP-backed Schultz does not want to lift the cap and plans to seek investments from the private sector.

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