When Fairfax County Supervisor Tom Davis asked a selection committee to come up with a list of candidates for an opening on the school board, Davis made one request:
"Give me three names, and don't worry about the politics. I'll worry about that."
Although Davis adamantly denies it, some close to the selection process say the Republican supervisor from the Mason District may have worried too much about the ploitics and not enough about experience when earlier this month he named James W. Kitchin to replace J. Roger Teller.
Kitchin is a Republican and Teller is a Democrat. Teller was appointed by Alan Magazine, a Democrat, who did not seek reelection in 1979. Davis defeated Betsy W. Hinkle, the Democratic candidate.
Although the appointment of James Kitchin to the Fairfax County school board was only one of six made in the county this month and only one of many school board selections made this year in Virginia, the story of how Kitchin was selected and who was left on the wayside sheds a revealing light on an appointment system that many say is not only antiquated but works contrary to its stated mission: to take the politics our of learning.
Of the 20 largest systems in the nation, Fairfax County is one of three that still has appointed school boards, rather than elected ones.
"It's very politically astute of Tom to say that it was a nonpartisan decision. But it was known early on in the game that there were pressures on him to name a Republican," says Mary Lou Montulli, president of Bailey Elementary Parent-Teacher Association. Montulli, who was contacted by Davis about possible nominees, was a strong supporter of retaining Teller.
"There was a strong sense that Teller had to go. It's too bad. I don't want to go on record as being against Kitchin -- I hardly know him -- but Roger did a good job and had a lot of experience. We're sorry to be losing that."
Members of the five-person selection committee vary on the amount of political input they say the Mason District supervisor may have considered in making his final decision. Some say they regret Teller was not reappointed, yet agree no political pressure was applied on them by Davis. Some, however, also add that the political liability of having a Democrat represent a district that voted Republican eventually had to take its toll.
After interviewing 10 candidates, the committee gave Davis two names -- Teller and Kitchin -- and added a third after the supervisor requested another name. Joanna Rubin, committee members say, was never really in the running.
"I don't think it was the only reason," says committee member Mary Gormley of Davis' political considerations, "but it was certainly one of the reasons. Teller and Davis don't vote in the same party."
Davis disputes the political shading of his selection process. He says it may have been the "hardest decision" he has made as a supervisor, but it certainly was not a "partisan one."
Davis says he never met Kitchin prior to the appointment, and that although Kitchin may be a registered Republican he is not active in party politics. Kitchin affirms this.
Teller, Davis concedes, was the most knowledgeable candidate applying for the two-year job. In fact, Davis says he almost reappointed the Georgetown University professor to a third term, but opted to go with Kitchin only after six weeks of decision-making left him with the conclusion that Kitchin more closely matched the personal style he wanted to see in a board member.
Davis also adds that Kitchin, a management consultant, will bring to the board a much needed fiscal skill.
He will be Davis says, more open and responsive to the community than Teller.
"Teller is a fine and decent gentleman, but he wasn't always accessible to the community," Davis says as he runs down a list of examples when he says Steller did not keep him up-to-date on school board events.
In particular, Davis points to Teller's role in the extremely controversial closing last year of Masonville Elementary School in his district. Two days before the school was pinpointed for closing, Davis had sent a letter to the civic association in the area assuring them that it looked like the school would not be closed.
Teller disputes Davis' characterizations of him as being unresponsive, and also cites instances where he told the supervisor or his aides that anytime they wanted information to call him.
Kitchin, an ex-military man and a current management consultant, is roundly described as "thoughtful," "solid" and a "careful decision-maker." An interview reveals a man of balanced opinions, bordering on the reticent.On the other hand, critics of his appointment say, he is untested whereas Teller had four years on the board and an astute knowledge of its intricate workings.
Kitchin was president of the Polk Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association in Alexandria nearly 10 years ago and since then has been a member of a county high school marching band booster club. He was also president of his civic association for three years in the early '70s.
Davis says he was in a "no-win situation with the appointment. Every time you make an appointment, someone is going to accuse you of political manipulating."
Yet, despite his protestations, there are those in Davis' party who ask why all the worry?
"I don't know why Tom would feel it might be inappropriate to look as if he had appointed someone for a political reason," says county Republican chairman William Olson. "It would be inappropriate for him to appoint a Democrat.
"The people in the Mason District who worked so hard to elect him, deserve to get a Republican. It's only reasonable, isn't it, that when people elect for a change in political leadership, that they are also looking for a change in government.
"What Tom did is perfectly justifable."