At a forum lacking controversy or even any disagreement, candidates for three Loudoun County School Board seats aired their views on education topics Tuesday night at J.L. Simpson Middle School in Leesburg.
Two incumbents and four challengers running in the Leesburg and Mercer districts and for the at-large seat talked about teacher salaries, school construction, safety concerns and the contentious relationship between the School Board and the Board of Supervisors. A smattering of residents--about 25--attended the forum, the first of five School Board debates scheduled this month.
A dozen questions from members of the PTA at Evergreen Mill Elementary School in Leesburg were submitted to the candidates in advance so they would have time to prepare answers, said Joan Rackham, the forum's moderator. Rackham is a member of the Loudoun County League of Women Voters, which co-sponsored the event with the Evergreen Mill PTA.
As the forum began, Rackham informed the candidates which four of the dozen questions she would be asking.
The Leesburg District candidates are incumbent Jeffrey M. Maged and challenger Frederick F. Flemming; in Mercer, challengers Patrick F. Chorpenning Jr. and Dean W. Coursen are squaring off, and at-large incumbent Wendall T. Fisher is being challenged by Thomas E. "Tom" Reed.
All six candidates agreed that Loudoun's teacher salaries must be raised to attract and retain the best instructors. Coursen, a former teacher who owns a landscaping firm, criticized the recent raises given to top school administrators, saying the money should have gone to teachers instead.
"These folks are already making megabucks," Coursen said of Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III and the others who got raises. "The top brass in Loudoun County got theirs before the teachers got theirs."
Chorpenning, a Fairfax County high school teacher, said other incentives should be discussed to lure and keep teachers, including signing bonuses, tuition reimbursement and more planning time.
Fisher, who works at the Leesburg YMCA, said that although he supports more pay for teachers, their salaries "are as competitive as our budget will allow us to be" given that the Board of Supervisors approves the School Board's budget.
The candidates also agreed that using less expensive materials to keep school construction costs down--as some have suggested-- may be penny-wise but pound-foolish in the long run.
Maged, a financial planner, rejected using less expensive materials. "I don't think we have any problems building schools," he said, arguing that the county has one of the lowest per-square-foot building costs in Virginia, even though it is the state's fastest-growing school district.
Flemming, making the case for better-quality materials, noted that 45-year-old Loudoun County High School has its original floor tiles, "and they still look great."
How to improve the relationship between the county's two elected boards--a frequent topic among parents and politicians--also was raised. The candidates pledged to ease the tensions that exist during the annual budget process and to mend the School Board's sometimes fractious relationship with the Board of Supervisors.
"There was absolute hostility," Reed said, referring to last year's budget deliberations between the two boards.
He and the other candidates said they have already contacted the supervisor candidates in their respective districts.
On the topic of school safety, the candidates agreed that Loudoun schools offer safe environments for students. But Fisher would like video cameras installed near the new portable classrooms at Loudoun County High, and Coursen supports changing the design for new high schools, replacing a mega-structure with two smaller buildings, with fewer students assigned to each.
The candidates did attempt to separate themselves from one another during their final statements.
Reed said he is the only candidate who favors school vouchers, which allow students to attend private and parochial schools using public funds.
And Chorpenning noted that, if elected, he would be the only active teacher on the board and, at 31, its youngest member. "I'd bring some energy to the School Board," he said.