In a largely staid election season in Fauquier County, two School Board incumbents are facing strong challenges from a pair of rivals spurred on by the sour relations between the School Board and the Board of Supervisors that began last spring during budget talks.
During interviews last week with the four candidates, the challengers placed much of the blame on the shoulders of the incumbents they hope to unseat.
"They spend 80 percent of their time fighting fights that don't need to be fought," said William G. Downey IV, who is challenging School Board Chairman Mary Charles Ashby in the Scott District.
"There's a lot of people who think that this School Board is very elitist," said Gary A. Maloche, who is taking on Cedar Run incumbent Alice Jane Childs.
For their part, Childs and Ashby--whom political observers say will be tough to dislodge because of their deep roots in the community--say the frayed relationship with the Board of Supervisors has been exaggerated in media accounts and, in any event, was brought on by the supervisors.
"There may be bad communication, but communication is a two-way street," said Ashby, an 11-year School Board member.
"I do not think the budget process was too bad last year," said Childs, who was commissioner of the revenue for seven terms before running for the School Board in 1995.
Downey is a construction consultant who has been on various school and county citizens panels. Maloche, who lost to Childs four years ago, is a computer engineer for a defense company who has served on school panels and the Library Board.
Earlier this month, the two challengers received endorsements from the Fauquier Education Association's political action committee, which makes political contributions--more along the lines of organizational help than actual cash--on behalf of the local teachers group. The chairman of the FEA committee, Chuck Schonder, said it was unusual for incumbents not to get the group's backing.
"It's a new era," Schonder said. "We think that one of the major things that needs to be addressed is improving relations with the supervisors."
Ashby and Childs played down the significance of not getting the endorsements. "I guess it was Gary's turn," Childs said.
Ashby said the committee's actions did not represent the will of the entire FEA, adding that criticism of those already in office--particularly veteran officeholders--goes with the territory.
"Sometimes, people who are in service come under a critical eye because they have done things," she said. "Sometimes, when your length of service is so long, it can be a disadvantage."
Some supervisors enjoy a close working relationship with their district's School Board representative. Not so with Ashby and Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott), who Ashby said has been backing her opponent.
Broni Lambelet, who is unopposed for the Marshall District seat being vacated by Paul J. Asciolla, said the new School Board has nowhere to go but up in its dealings with the supervisors. "These relationships tend to ebb and flow. Unfortunately, we've been on what you would call an ebb," she said.
Most observers of both five-member boards say the difficulties began in early spring when the supervisors did not approve the School Board's full budget request--falling about $1.7 million short in an overall operating budget of $72 million--for which they were criticized by, among others, school Superintendent Dallas M. Johnson.
Supervisors then fanned the flames by taking the unusual step of withholding part of the school system's budget until the School Board gave assurances that it would finance the teacher raise pushed by the supervisors.
Irked that their authority was being challenged in what they viewed as a heavy-handed manner, School Board members sent a letter to the supervisors threatening legal action. That thought eventually fizzled out.
Throughout the process, though, the School Board complained that it wasn't getting accurate financial information. This past summer, School Board members approved hiring a comptroller, in effect duplicating services provided by the county Finance Department.
In a power-sharing agreement worked out in 1995, certain departments used by the schools and the county government are under the control of the School Board and the superintendent, with others under the county administrator, at the direction of the supervisors.
Last month, when it became clear that the schools had duplicated the work of the Finance Department by hiring a comptroller, the supervisors canceled the power-sharing agreement. Then the comptroller--whose lack of background in public finance had been questioned by the supervisors--made unsubstantiated accusations of bad bookkeeping by county finance officials.
"They've been wasting a lot of valuable time," Downey said of the protracted struggle.
Ashby said it isn't so simple. "Most of the press that's been out there in recent months has been portraying the School Board as the bad guys," she said. "We're not doing a bad job."
As for policy issues, the incumbents said they tend to agree with many of the ideas being raised by their challengers, including a review of the budget procedure to make it more detailed and a renewed effort to have Fauquier included in an education funding district that would result in more state money for county schools.
Supervisor Hopefuls Spar
Candidates for the three contested seats on the Board of Supervisors sparred over local issues at a forum Thursday night at Warrenton's First Baptist Church. The event was sponsored by the Fauquier County Chamber of Commerce.
Lee District Republican nominee Sharon Grove McCamy criticized her independent challenger, William "Bill" R. Frazier, for his support of the planned Virginia Power plant near Remington. Both said they support extending the Virginia Railway Express to Bealeton, although both oppose increasing the gas tax to pay for it.
In the Center District, incumbent Republican Joe Winkelmann said that last year's budget, which included a teacher pay raise but no increase in the tax rate, fulfilled his campaign promises from a special election a year ago. His Democratic challenger, Richard M. Galecki, was critical that the budget did not give more to schools.
And in the Marshall District, Planning Commission Chairman Harry Atherton, who is running as an independent for the seat being vacated by James R. Green (I), said he favored lowering the density for residential development in the county's nine service districts. His challenger, orchard owner Traci M. Guynup Stribling, also an independent, said she favors promoting growth in those districts to prevent overdevelopment in outlying rural areas.
CAPTION: Alice Jane Childs
CAPTION: Gary A. Maloche
CAPTION: Mary Charles Ashby
CAPTION: William G. Downey IV