Arlington School Board candidate Shaun W. Whelden hasn't had much time to build a long record of public service and educational credentials. But he is fresh from his firsthand experience as an Arlington County public school student -- he graduated from Yorktown High School just two years ago. Some of his younger classmates are still at Yorktown, and he has recent memories of sitting on the other side of the desk.
Whelden, a 20-year-old political science major at Marymount University, is one of four candidates vying for two seats up for election on the five-member board. Whelden and William S. Barker are hoping to upset incumbents E.T. "Libby" Garvey, the board's chair, and Frank K. Wilson, who has served on the board for 20 years.
Under Virginia law, school boards are nonpartisan and candidates run as independents, but the major political parties usually endorse candidates. Whelden is a Libertarian and Barker has been endorsed by the Republican Party. Garvey and Wilson are both Democrats.
Whelden and Barker say the most pressing issue facing the school system is the possibility that attendance boundaries will be redrawn to address enrollment imbalances in several North Arlington elementary schools. The subject has stirred intense emotions among parents, many of whom believe that the district has not worked hard enough to solve the problem without redrawing the boundaries. Barker and Whelden say they are opposed to any redistricting.
Barker, a retired Navy civilian official who has a daughter at Washington-Lee High School, said the board caused needless worry in the community by posting examples of possible new boundaries on the school district Web site before definitive enrollment statistics were available.
"Why do you have to rile up the community this way if you don't even have good numbers to go by?" he said. "People are saying how out of touch the board is. We really don't have a good analysis of what's working and what's not working in our community."
Garvey and Wilson say that the boundary issue has been blown out of proportion and that redistricting may not be necessary if the district can find other solutions to the uneven enrollment.
"We may not even change the boundaries," Garvey said.
Garvey, who has been on the board for seven years, said that the federal No Child Left Behind Act poses a more serious problem for the school system.
The goal of the law is for all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Schools are required to meet progressively higher targets each year as they seek the goal. In Virginia, scores on the state Standards of Learning exams determine whether schools meet the annual benchmarks. Schools that fail to make adequate progress for two consecutive years are required to develop plans for improvement, and those that receive federal money based on poverty rates -- Title I schools -- also must allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools.
"It's absolutely bogus," Garvey said of the law. "A school can make incredible progress and not make it over the bar [mandated by the law] with the numbers they have."
Wilson said that narrowing the achievement gap and making sure all students have access to Advanced Placement courses are also pressing issues, but he added that overall the district is doing well.
"We have probably the most diverse school population in Northern Virginia," he said. "To meet all the needs of those students coming from all over the world is tough, and we continue to do a pretty good job."
Both Garvey and Wilson have children who graduated from Arlington public schools.
Barker, who comes from a family of teachers, said he would like to see more magnet programs like the Arlington Traditional School, and that he would like the popular Arlington Science Focus School to become a "true magnet school" that is open to all county students.
Whelden said he has been thinking about running for the board since his junior year of high school, when he and a fellow student challenged a policy prohibiting students from distributing literature on campus. He also opposes the No Child Left Behind Act. "It may be okay for failing districts, but ours wasn't broke to begin with," he said.
Whelden would like to see schools stop accepting federal funds until the law is repealed, a desire he admits is not realistic.