Long after the school day was over, high school senior Dominic DeCastro learned a lesson last week that Loudoun County School Board member Robert F. DuPree Jr. deals with at every meeting.
"You realize how much of education is economics," DeCastro, a student at Dominion High School in Sterling, said at the end of a roundtable discussion Wednesday in which DuPree's comment about the unfairness of the county sending more money to Richmond than it gets back "by a long shot" was a common complaint.
For more than 90 minutes in the Dominion library, DeCastro, DuPree, who represents the Dulles District, and about a dozen others interested in education in the county hammered out a list of priorities they want the gubernatorial candidates to address in tonight's debate in Richmond.
"We need to invest in teachers' salaries. Getting people to stay here has to be our number one priority," Dominion Principal John W. Brewer told the gathering, which included School Board members, a county supervisor, educators, students and community activists.
All of the participants in the discussion, organized by the Virginia Education Forum, agreed that gubernatorial candidates Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Jerry W. Kilgore (R) must first and foremost offer a budget that will help local governments provide quality public education.
"The state is simply not paying its fair share," said Loudoun School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III. "It can't pay its fair share if it does not raise more revenue."
"We've been punished for our growth," added Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I).
Other agreed-upon priorities were:
* Increasing funding for teacher salaries and recruitment.
* Providing financial incentives to entice students into teaching.
* Dedicating funds to address the rising number and needs of students for whom English is a second language.
The participants also said the candidates should address the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law and the financial burden they place on school systems.
The Virginia Education Forum forwarded the group's priorities, along with a list compiled at a similar session in Roanoke on Monday, to each of the gubernatorial campaigns and to Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political science professor who will moderate tonight's debate.
The burden on teachers who must commute from West Virginia and farther-away Virginia counties weighed heavily on the Sterling discussion.
"We have teachers who can't afford to live in the areas where they teach," said Paul Lin, vice president of the Loudoun Education Foundation.
"Too many of our teachers are working in restaurants at night to make ends meet," said community activist Delbert White Jr. "We have to solve the teacher housing problem."
The state could play a more vital role by forgiving student loans and offering tax breaks to public school teachers, White said. He also wanted to hear the gubernatorial candidates talk about income disparities that leave some in prosperous Loudoun barely able to afford "three hots and a cot every day."
"We have to make sure we don't leave those families behind," White said.
Candace Avalos, a senior at Dominion and president of the school's student council, said she was concerned about the gap between non-English-speaking students and others. "They are being left out because of language barriers," she said, arguing that there should be more money to help make these students feel they are part of the school and the community.
Like her classmate DeCastro, Avalos left the meeting with a new understanding of the tie between economics and education.
"This opened my eyes to the financial disparities that exist," she said. "Everything boils down to money."
Avalos said she will be listening closely tonight to hear whether Kaine and Kilgore address these issues and how they plan to pay for their proposals.