School Board Candidates Grapple With Budget, Other Issues

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007

Some candidates for Fairfax County School Board pledge to ferret out waste in the $2 billion budget. Some see intensified phonics instruction as a way to narrow the minority achievement gap. And some say the school system should do more for students who excel.

Twenty-one contenders are vying for 12 seats on a board that oversees the largest school system in the region and 13th-largest nationwide. Incumbents are uncontested in five races, but eight candidates are seeking three countywide seats, and eight more are seeking four contested district seats.

Those who win four-year terms Nov. 6 will make funding decisions, recommend curriculum changes, vote on school attendance zones and monitor the leadership of Superintendent Jack D. Dale. No issue has dominated the campaign, but the new board is likely to face tough policy questions right away. Dale is anticipating a need to make budget cuts because county officials predict the region's housing slump will mean stagnant funding for schools. Three-quarters of the schools' $2.2 billion annual budget comes from the county. Cuts could force schools to eliminate programs, raise class sizes or scale back plans to expand full-day kindergarten.

The 165,000-student school system also is under growing pressure from the No Child Left Behind law as schools move toward a goal of having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014. This year, 68 county schools did not make the grade under the federal law, compared with 32 last year.

Voters in Prince William and Loudoun counties also will elect school boards Nov. 6. In Prince William, two seats on the eight-member board are contested, with candidates focused on ways to relieve crowded schools and help students learning to speak English as a second language. In Loudoun, six of nine board seats are contested as candidates spar over finding land for new schools.

Under Virginia law, school boards are nonpartisan, but in Fairfax, no candidate has won election without the backing of a major political party. This year, the five unchallenged board members are Democrat-endorsed. Both major parties are endorsing full slates for other seats. Most current board members are Democrat-backed; two are GOP-endorsed. But the board has made a point of working for consensus, and few votes are along party lines.

The contest for countywide at-large seats could lead to a shift in the board's dynamics.

At-large incumbents Stephen M. Hunt, 49, backed by the GOP, and Ilryong Moon, 50, backed by the Democrats, are seeking reelection. At least one countywide seat will be filled by a newcomer because board member Janet S. Oleszek, a Democrat, is challenging state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in Fairfax County's 37th District race.

Hunt and Christian N. Braunlich, 54, a Republican-backed candidate who served two terms on the School Board from 1995 to 2003, support more phonics instruction for struggling young readers, an effort they think would help narrow the achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian American peers.

Hunt, an analyst with Science Applications International, also said he wants to evaluate programs to ensure that the schools are spending money effectively. He advocates a back-to-basics approach, with a focus on math and reading.

Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Fairfax, said he would advocate for more honors classes for "kids in the middle."

Moon, a South Korean-born lawyer who came to the United States as a teenager, is the only ethnic minority on the board. Moon said he would push to continue expansion of full-day kindergarten and foreign language instruction in elementary schools despite budget constraints. He also said the system needs to do more to help students who perform well do even better.

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