Reform-minded challengers failed to unseat Fairfax School Board members in Tuesday’s election, but they succeeded in forcing candidates across the county to endorse at least some change in the management of the region’s largest school system.
Now the question is whether those candidates will keep their campaign promises.
If they do, the next board will probably look more skeptically upon central-administration expenditures and will almost certainly hire an independent auditor to evaluate programs and spending. It may push to restore honors courses as a mid-level choice between standard-level and Advanced Placement classes.
And perhaps most importantly, after years of fielding criticism for allegedly ignoring community input on high-profile issues including budget cuts and discipline-policy reform, the next board will be more sensitive to making sure parents and teachers feel heard.
“Every parent wants and needs to be listened to; I think that’s the bottom line,” said Chairwoman Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), who narrowly turned back Republican-backed challenger Louise Epstein in the county’s tightest race.
Strauss’s campaign promises included restoring class sizes to pre-recession levels, a response to complaints about her support for sending more teachers to the county’s neediest schools. That has left affluent schools — many of which are in Dranesville — with some of the county’s largest classes.
Strauss said she remained committed to that policy, but the campaign served as a reminder that she can’t take community support for granted.
“When money becomes tight, you have to make sure that the interests of all children are somehow satisfied,” she said. “There has to be a balance.”
Strauss was one of four incumbents who survived contested races, ensuring that the next board will be anchored by a group that intends to continue guiding the high-performing, 177,000-student system along its current path. The other incumbents, all Democrat-endorsed, were Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon), Kathy Smith (Sully) and Ilryong Moon (At Large).
“Voters wanted stability,” said Moon, especially as the board prepares to begin searching for a successor to Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who announced in September that he plans to step down when his contract ends in 2013.
“We do have good schools in Fairfax County,” Moon said, “and a drastic change is not something that is necessary.”
Still, the 12-member board will also include a group of activist-minded members who have a history of challenging school administrators.
They include two incumbents who ran unopposed, Democrat-backed Sandy Evans (Mason) and G.O.P.-endorsed Patty Reed (Providence), and two candidates who won seats vacated by retiring members: Democrat-backed Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), a parent who led the push for grading-policy reform, and Republican-endorsed Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), a parent who fought the board’s decision to close Clifton Elementary School.
“I’m hopeful that substantive issues will get a more proactive look,” said McLaughlin, “and that parents and teachers will see an improvement in the school board’s responsiveness to their concerns.”
With half the board retiring and several incumbents locked in tight races, the board race drew extra attention this year. Even so, turnout was low. And many voters who did go to the polls said they chose candidates based on party affiliation because they hadn’t tuned in to candidates’ differences in the down-ballot race.
By law, Virginia school boards are nonpartisan, but both political parties typically endorse slates of candidates.
In the last 10 days of the campaign, the local and state Democratic organizations worked hard to stave off GOP contenders, targeting the usually sleepy school board race with a full-color mailing. The partisan push may have made a difference — particularly in the dizzying at-large race, which featured seven candidates vying for three countywide seats.
Besides Moon, the incumbent, at-large victors included Ryan McElveen and Ted Velkoff, two Democrat-backed candidates who ran not as reformers so much as champions of the school system. They fended off strong challenges by Republican-endorsed candidates who said they would work aggressively to overhaul school leadership.
Other Democratic-backed winners included Pat Hynes in Hunter Mill, a teacher who has said she wants to represent men and women working in the classroom, and Tamara Derenak Kaufax, who ran uncontested in Lee.
In all, Democrat-endorsed candidates will hold 10 seats on the new board — one more than they hold now.