Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Fairfax County school system has about 75,000 students. The district has a projected enrollment of more than 177,600 students for the 2011-12 school year. This version has been corrected.
Like many Fairfax County parents, Steven Stuban and his wife entrusted their child to the nationally regarded public school system, believing that the people who ran the district would do what’s best for its students.
Then their only child, Nick, committed suicide while being punished under the district’s zero-tolerance disciplinary policy, and the Stubans got a troubling look inside a system that seemed to them to run on autopilot, as if its administrators were so thoroughly convinced of its excellence that they no longer listened to the families it served.
“There were so many instances where people could have done the right thing, and they did not,” Stuban said. Now Stuban, who has never sought elective office, is running for the Fairfax County School Board, at least in part because of what happened to his son.
If successful, he would be responsible for overseeing Superintendent Jack D. Dale, whose administration and policies had such an impact on Stuban’s son.
Stuban is one of several political newcomers whose entry into the normally sleepy School Board elections has transformed them into this year’s marquee event in Fairfax politics in November, potentially overshadowing the races for the more powerful Board of Supervisors, which governs the county of more than 1 million residents.
What’s at stake is control over one of the nation’s largest school districts at a time when school reform is in the national spotlight. Although the races are nonpartisan, Republicans in particular are hoping that some newcomers may lay the groundwork for future political gains in a county that tilts Democratic.
Elizabeth Schultz, who is also a first-time candidate, launched her School Board candidacy in the wake of an emotional but losing battle against closing Clifton Elementary School. Another critic-turned-candidate is Megan McLaughlin, who co-founded Fairgrade , an advocacy group of parents who worked to overhaul grading policies.
Ryan McElveen, a recent graduate of the Fairfax public schools, is entering his first political campaign because, among other things, he said he thinks the district was wrong to impose a $100 fee on students who play team sports.
“It’s outrageous,” said McElveen, 25, whom the county’s Democratic Party chief has called a “rising star.” “When we have an obesity epidemic, we want to encourage students to be active.”
Others could still step forward before the Aug. 23 deadline to register for Fairfax offices. Almost all local offices in Fairfax are up for grabs this fall, and an intense fight is underway for control of the state Senate, but the School Board races have attracted especially keen interest for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, even some Republicans acknowledge that their party faces challenging odds in changing the balance on the county’s governing body, with most interest focused on the battle over Republican Supervisor John C. Cook’s seat in the swing Braddock District. Another reason may simply be the large number of open seats on the 12-member School Board, because half of its members chose to step down when their terms end Dec. 31.
But government officials, party leaders, candidates and School Board members also say that the restive mood has been fueled by a series of controversies that have arisen under the School Board and superintendent.
These include impassioned debate over the district’s zero-tolerance disciplinary policy; the possible ill effects of its early starting times on teenagers’ sleep and health; stringent grading, which, some argue, has hurt students’ college chances; eliminating some honors courses; imposing fees for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests and sports; and the decision to close Clifton Elementary School because of changing enrollment patterns.
Some of those policies have been rescinded or modified in response to criticism, such as the zero-tolerance approach to discipline and charging fees for tests and sports. But critics say the controversies have contributed to the view that the Fairfax School Board and superintendent have been repeatedly high-handed, resistant to public scrutiny and slow to change. Dale declined requests for an interview for this article but — in response to criticism over the length of time that passed before the discipline policy was altered — he has said that the district engages in a “continuous improvement process.”
“The outrage over the School Board is unlike anything we’ve ever had in Fairfax County before,” said Board of Supervisors member Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), who has no opponent in his race this year. “It’s the schools’ and the School Board’s lack of accountability and transparency. That’s what’s driving this unprecedented level of interest, if anything.”
Herrity predicts there could be as much as a 5 percent boost in voter turnout because of interest in the School Board races.
“I think you’re going to see the battleground in the School Board races,” said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee). McKay, who is also running unopposed, said the school district has too often shrugged off parental concerns, potentially making itself vulnerable to outsiders.
But he said Democrats also think voters will remember which party has been most supportive of public schools. “At the end of the day, who do you really trust?” McKay said.
More than 400 people attended recent Fairfax County Republican Committee meetings to decide which School Board candidates would receive its endorsements, and about as many turned out for similar forums of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. (Candidates do not run as party nominees on a party slate, but the parties choose preferred candidates.)
As of Friday, 17 Fairfax School Board candidates had been certified to run, including 10 seeking one of the three at-large seats, and nine others had filed paperwork indicating they will enter the race, said Gary Scott, deputy registrar the county’s Office of Elections.
Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), who became head of the School Board last month, said she thinks more people are paying attention because educational reform has been on the national agenda. In the era of No Child Left Behind, parents everywhere are reappraising their public schools, and Fairfax, with more than 177,600 students and 22,000 employees, is the nation’s 11th-biggest district. It consumes more than half of all county revenue.
Strauss said people are more agitated because the school district, like public institutions at all levels, has had to weather the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Since fiscal 2009, the district has eliminated 1,400 positions, reduced pay for 3,200 others and cut total spending by $465 million while enrollment has risen.
Yet, student achievement levels have risen, too, and the minority achievement gap has shrunk. This year, the district also announced plans to provide all-day kindergarten in all schools and boost teacher pay to keep the district competitive.
“My feeling is, people in general are happy with the school system’s performance,” said Ilryong Moon, an at-large member seeking another term. “Are we a perfect school system? No, we are not. That’s why I welcome feedback from the public.”
Others dismiss the heightened scrutiny as driven by a minority of critics. “There is a group of people, and they’re just angry people, and they try to pick a fight over everything,” said School Board member Brad Center (Lee), who is not seeking reelection.
But some say the board has sided too quickly with the superintendent and county staff and is too quick to dismiss outside criticism.
“One of the things I think our school board loses sight of is that we’re elected, and we’re the trustees for the public,” said School Board member Martina A. Hone (At Large), a frequent critic of Dale’s who has chosen not to run again. “We did not run for the School Board to protect the system. I ran to protect the kids.”
“If you just look at the candidates, a lot of them come from this activist place,” said Sandra S. Evans (Mason), a School Board member and former advocate who co-founded SLEEP, the group seeking to change start times.
Stuban, 52, a West Point graduate and retired lieutenant colonel, said that what galvanized his decision to run was what he called the district’s lack of responsiveness and transparency. He said that his 15-year-old son acknowledged his mistake — he had bought an over-the-counter marijuana-like substance that was then legal — but that the school’s discipline procedures were over the top.
Administrators seemed not to heed extenuating circumstances surrounding Nick, an otherwise good student and athlete whose mother was battling a progressive, debilitating disease. The school went by the book in meting out punishment, including moving Nick from the only social network he knew.
“Nick was ripped from the one environment where he got to be Nick,” Stuban said. Even worse, Stuban said, was that the district at first refused to reconsider its stance after Nick’s suicide.
“I’ve been stunned by the intransigence of the School Board and the superintendent even to discuss this,” Stuban said. “That really galvanized my decision to run for the School Board.”