An Oct. 6 Metro article incorrectly said that most of the Fairfax County School Board's decisions since 1996 have been 8 to 4 party-line votes. Records compiled by the board's clerk show that a majority of the votes have been unanimous. (Published 10/13/1999)
Shortly after the first School Board election in Fairfax County's history, the four Republicans elected to the 12-member panel met to plan their strategy.
All four believed that although Fairfax's school system was better than most, it suffered from some of the same problems that plagued public education as a whole: too many unproven curriculum fads, too much spending on school bureaucracy and too little emphasis on traditional teaching methods such as phonics and math drills.
They decided to form a cohesive GOP bloc that would push for fundamental changes, though they knew their agenda was probably doomed. "We knew what we wanted to do--we wanted to bring out our ideas and fight for them," said board member Gary A. Reese (Sully), the senior Republican on the board. "We were not going to act like the minority and just sit on our hands."
And fight they have. Since that decision four years ago, Republicans and Democrats have clashed at almost every Fairfax School Board meeting. No other school board in the Washington area is so sharply divided along party lines.
That partisanship has become an issue in the current School Board campaign. Several challengers running in the Nov. 2 board election say the long and frequent disputes have wasted time and reduced the board's effectiveness, and they have promised that their approach would be less confrontational.
But the incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, see little hope for bridging their differences, with each side saying the other's attitude makes compromise unlikely. All but two of the board members elected in 1995 are seeking reelection.
The Virginia General Assembly voted in 1992 to allow cities and counties to switch from appointed to elected school boards. The elections are nonpartisan, but in Fairfax--as in several other Northern Virginia counties--candidates often run with the endorsement of the Republican or Democratic party. About half of Maryland's school boards are elected, and its political parties rarely make endorsements.
What sets Fairfax's board apart is a sense of party discipline as strong as one would find in Congress. Although several initiatives have passed the board unanimously, including one creating a new system of annual goals for the district and each of its schools, most decisions have been 8 to 4 party-line votes. Also striking to many observers is how often those votes are preceded by long debates that change no one's mind.
Some residents say that the intense debate is healthy and that the Republican minority has served as a gadfly, raising questions about school programs that needed scrutiny.
"I applaud them for it," said Karen Todaro, a parent activist who has lobbied for more phonics instruction in the county curriculum. "I think the Democrats tend to back the educators, and the educators don't really want change."
But others, including several business and PTA leaders, say the board could have accomplished much more had it not been mired in partisan skirmishing.
"Less gets done because they spend time debating too many radically different views," said Edward H. Bersoff, a computer company executive and former Fairfax Chamber of Commerce president.
"I don't know that there's a Republican or Democratic way to teach kids," Bersoff said. "While the parties may have differing views on fiscal or other broad policies, when it comes down to the basic educational process, I don't think any one party has all the right answers, and frankly, I'm not sure the School Board is the best place to decide those issues."
Rosemary Lynch, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said the ideological issues that have consumed much of the board's time--sex education, the Pledge of Allegiance and the role of guidance counselors, for example--are of little interest to most Fairfax parents.
Despite being consistently outvoted, the board's four Republicans have managed to influence its agenda by introducing motions on issues important to them. Rather than cutting off discussion and proceeding quickly to a vote, the panel's eight Democrats often have reacted by debating the issue at length, so that they can explain why they are opposed to the Republicans' seemingly popular idea.
The Pledge of Allegiance debate last year illustrated the pattern. The Republicans proposed that Fairfax schools start the day with students reciting the pledge. Democrats agreed with the idea of requiring schools to include the pledge in their day, but said principals should be allowed to decide the best time of day for the activity. The Democrats won, but not without an arduous debate.
Democrats contend that in that case, as in several others, the Republicans' main purpose was to force Democrats to take a vote that might be used against them later in a campaign. Indeed, candidates in both parties have been citing their opponents' voting records as the campaign heats up.
In such an atmosphere, it is hard to reach compromise with the other party, said board Vice Chairman Mark H. Emery (At Large), a Democrat. "There is a difference between bringing forward real initiatives that are aimed at benefiting children and education and proposing plans simply to bring forth a voting record," Emery said.
Besides, he added, the philosophical differences between the two sides are just too great.
"Overall, you have one side that feels we have an excellent school system that we're trying to move forward and improve upon, and the other side that wants us to take a giant leap backward based on their view that public education is failing," Emery said.
For their part, the Republican incumbents say they won't back off in bringing up issues that are uncomfortable for the majority party.
"I look at it as my responsibility as an elected official to put forth my ideas," said Republican board member Mychele B. Brickner (At Large). "The fact that others vote against it is not my problem. I don't understand this concept of not putting forward ideas simply because you know it's going to lose."
Four challengers in the election--Catherine A. "Cathy" Belter, Robert W. Gardner, Brad Center and Jamie E. Ruppmann--say the incumbents haven't tried hard enough to work together.
Although all four are running with party endorsements--Ruppmann is backed by the GOP and the other three by the Democratic Party--they have pledged to try to build coalitions across party lines.
"I think no matter which party's beliefs you espouse, most people are somewhat uncomfortable with how partisan the board has become," said Belter, who is running in the Springfield District.
"It's a complaint I've often heard, from the PTAs in particular," said Center, who is seeking the Lee District seat on the board. "You see way too many 8-4 votes, and it often seems that the educational merits of an issue get lost in the effort to make a partisan point."