Fund-raising in the heated campaign for a seat on the Arlington County School Board has passed the $60,000 mark and seems likely to approach the record of more than $90,000 set in 1994, when elections were first held for the board.
In the contest between Sharon E. Davis, 48, a congressional staffer endorsed by the Democratic Party, and David M. Foster, 45, a lawyer endorsed by the nonpartisan Arlingtonians for a Better County (ABC), one important factor in the surge of contributions is the presence of Foster, who helped set the record five years ago.
Although defeated then by current board member Mary H. Hynes, Foster came closer than expected in that five-candidate race, taking about 35 percent of the vote to Hynes's 55 percent. This year he is receiving contributions at an even faster pace, pushing his total to $41,684 as of Aug. 31.
On issues, Davis wants to reach out to leading universities and recruiting firms to improve hiring in the schools. "If we hope to see every student achieving at a high rate, the school system must find better ways to recruit skilled, well-trained and diverse teachers and principals," she said.
Foster criticizes what he calls management failures by the board. "Why is the school system spending money on things like litigation over racial preferences and educating nonresidents, when we can't find the money for enough bus drivers or for more teachers to reduce class size?" he said.
Asked about contentious issues that have come before the board, both Davis and Foster said they would have tried to preserve the rifle range at Yorktown High School. Foster said he would have supported letting Arlington students attend Fairfax's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, while Davis said she would have leaned toward using the money to improve science education in Arlington schools. Davis supports and Foster opposes a pilot program using Spanish two hours a day in teaching children from non-English-speaking families at four elementary schools.
The Democrats' strong local party organization has helped win every school board election since the county switched from an appointed board in 1994. In ordinary circumstances, that would give Davis, an active PTA member who has campaigned vigorously for better teacher recruitment, an advantage. Foster is running as an independent, but he has been active in the Republican Party in a county where the GOP label is usually a handicap.
But Foster has become an active and well-known volunteer on countywide school committees since 1994 and has served as a member of the executive board of the County Council of PTAs. One of the most effective mailings against him five years ago was a "report card" that compared Hynes's extensive school activities against what was then his much shorter volunteer resume. Now he is using the same weapon against Davis, who is a former member of the Board of Visitors of George Mason University but has less experience than Foster in Arlington school organizations.
Foster has said little about his GOP connections and has emphasized the strong support he has from many Democrats, including former Arlington Education Association (AEA) president Marty Swaim. AEA officials said his widespread experience in county affairs and his aggressive advocacy of teacher issues won him the endorsement of the political action committee of the AEA, the county's teacher organization.
Davis has been endorsed by all five Democrats on the school board and nine former AEA presidents and has much teacher support. But one political veteran said she may have suffered from the fact that she is married to a former member of the Arlington County Board, blamed by some AEA members for moving too slowly on improvements in the local retirement system for school and county officials.
Turnout may also be more favorable for Foster this year than in 1994, when Democrats rushed to the polls to vote against Republican U.S. Senate candidate Oliver North.
Foster has raised more than twice as much as Davis, who had collected $18,765 as of Aug. 31. He is expected to have more advertising on cable television and in local publications. Foster spokeswoman Marlee Norton said she is certain he will beat his 1994 fund-raising total of about $51,000.
A plus for Davis is the popular Democratic incumbent, state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, at the top of the Arlington ballot. The Democrats have also had success in the past with wide distribution of sample ballots recommending a straight party line vote in all races.