Running for the school board seemed to Vicki P. Rafel to be the logical extension of her activities over the past 10 years.
Most recently she had helped organize and served as an expert witness in a challenge to several Montgomery County school board decisions to close schools. In an unprecedented action, a state hearing examiner found in April that the board had ignored its own criteria in its order to close several schools, including Rosemary Hills, and to redraw boundaries for Montgomery Blair High School.
Rafel is seeking one of the four seats up for election. A Sept. 14 primary will narrow the field of candidates to eight, and voters will choose four on Nov. 2. All of the board's nine slots are at-large, nonpartisan seats. The four to be filled in November now are held by Joseph Barse, Carol Wallace, Eleanor Zappone and Elizabeth Spencer, who says she will seek reelection.
Rafel's activism in public education began when her two sons entered school. It included stints as PTA president at North Chevy Chase Elementary School, area vice presidency of the Montgomery County Council of the PTA and president of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High PTSA for two terms, and years of service on several watchdog committees at Rosemary Hills and Bethesda Chevy Chase clusters of schools, monitoring resources given to the schools by the administration.
"I know the system and I know the county, and over the years I have built a network of people with similar concerns and it was probably time for me to try it," said Rafel, 44, sitting in the living room of her comfortable but modest Chevy Chase home. She is short and dark-haired, her face free of makeup on a Wednesday morning. She is poised and confident. "I went into this knowing it's not going to be easy, but I did my homework."
Her husband, Norman, a private management consultant, is a former commissioner of Montgomery Soccer Inc. Rafel sees the families of the 8,000 children in the league as "the grass roots of my campaign because we've worked with them over the years."
Raised in the Midwest, Rafel came to Washington to study international affairs at George Washington University. After graduating with a bachelor's degree, she worked in the Washington office of the Seattle World's Fair and from 1961 to 1964 did economic and legislative research for the American Bankers' Association. She quit work to raise her sons, Sam, now 16, a senior at Bethesda Chevy Chase High, and Jamie, 12, a seventh grader at Westland Junior High.
Rafel believes the present school board has let slip the public school system's reputation for excellence and fairness.
"I see signs of a diminishment in how well the schools are doing for the children," she said, citing a recent survey that said nearly 30 percent of the county's children were in nonpublic schools and other predictions that in the Chevy Chase area that number would soon reach 38 percent.
The board's lengthy bickering over closing schools has created "instability" and has "burned out" many parents, who then turn to private schools because they tire of waiting to see which schools their children would attend, she said. In the long debate, she said, the board has alienated communities, even those willing to have schools closed.
The school board "may have gotten itself into an adversary role, not only with some communities, but also with elected officials," Rafel said.
She said that this year the County Council cut the school budget more than in past years because council members had doubts "about how truthful are budget statements that board members make."
"The board seems to have a credibility problem with the County Council and with the people," she said. "We can't afford to erode financial support for the schools."
This lack of confidence in the board extends to educational professionals within the system, she said, adding that professionals are no longer encouraged to write proposals for new or better programs.
"When the system asks for professional opinions, the board seems to ignore those proposals," Rafel said. She said elementary principals recently asked for school counselors. Instead, the board pumped in 40 more teachers, reducing elementary class sizes by one student. County Council budget cuts subsequently reduced that figure to 20 teachers, reducing class size by one-half child.
"We could have split the difference and gotten some elementary counselors," Rafel said. Professionals "need to feel that they have ownership in this system, just like anybody else. There are some spectacularly good educators in the system, and it's a shame not to encourage them."
Colleagues say Rafel is especially skilled at bringing different groups of parents together to work toward a common goal.
"She works well with people," said retired county teacher Miriam Felstein. "You toss her a real toughie, and she doesn't get flustered. She can handle it." Felstein, who taught Rafel's children at North Chevy Chase, said Rafel helped make newly integrated families there feel comfortable at the school.
Joan E. Donoghue, a lawyer for the Covington & Burling law firm, which handled the Rosemary Hills/Blair appeal, said Rafel was skillful in handling the appeal's fund raising. "I was impressed with her ability to deal with various communities. They all seemed to be pleased with her ability to organize," Donoghue said.
In her home, Rafel scoots to the edge of her worn easy chair, rests her elbows on her knees and clasps her hands.
"I see myself as a moderate in terms of process and approach to people, but if people have to have a label, I see myself as committed to the liberal principal of quality education for all children," she said.