The Washington Post

Steve Stuban channels grief over son’s suicide into race for Fairfax school board

On Nov. 8, Fairfax voters will choose three candidates to fill countywide “at-large’’ seats on the school board. Seven people are running for those three seats, and we are publishing brief profiles of each of them.

The school board race is technically nonpartisan, but political parties have historically played a role.

The Hatch Act, which limits partisan activities by federal employees, prohibited candidate Steve Stuban from seeking a party endorsement. If he wins in November, observers say, he will be the first school board member elected without the benefit of party backing.

If anyone can win a countywide seat without a political party’s voters, volunteers and money, it might be Steve Stuban, whose family story has become a widely recognized symbol of alleged intransigence and insensitivity in the Fairfax County school system.

Stuban’s son Nick, a W.T. Woodson High School student and football player, committed suicide in January in the aftermath of school disciplinary proceedings.

Nick’s death galvanized activists to push for changes to what they said was an overly harsh discipline code. And it motivated his father to run for school board, to try changing the system from the inside.

“All along this path, starting with my son’s initial suspension and then the hearing office and then afterwards dealing with the superintendent, I thought that I was going to be dealing with people who were competent, caring and engaged in what they’re doing,” said Steve Stuban, 52. “I was sorely disappointed.”

The school system passed some discipline-policy reforms in June. Stuban would like to push further changes, but he says he’s more than a single-issue candidate.


He also proposes creating two non-voting board seats, for parent and teacher representatives, and supports offering honors courses as a middle choice between standard-level and Advanced Placement classes.

But most of all, Stuban says, he wants to build a trusting relationship between school leaders and community members. Parents, teachers and students need to know they are being listened to on issues ranging from budgeting to boundary changes — and right now, says Stuban, those stakeholders feel shut out.

“If you were to ask somebody in Fairfax who’s your school board member, unless they’re an advocate for something, they probably wouldn’t know and probably wouldn’t care,” he said.

“But the cumulative effect of some of the decisions this board has made in the last 18 months is that more and more people care. More and more people want to see this board changed.”

Stuban and his wife Sandy, who is disabled by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, had intended to set up a suicide-prevention foundation in their son’s memory. They still plan to do so, but they have put a chunk of their money — more than $12,000 — toward Stuban’s campaign.

“We don’t want to spend our time fundraising,” he said. “We want to spend our time talking about the issues.”

Stuban holds several engineering degrees, including a doctorate in systems engineering from George Washington University. An Army Corps of Engineers officer for 24 years, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and now works as a program director at the Department of Defense.

Other at-large candidates are Republican-backed Sheree Brown-Kaplan, Lin-Dai Kendall and Lolita Mancheno-Smoak; and Democrat-backed Ilryong Moon, Ryan McElveen and Ted Velkoff.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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