Usually, Fairfax County School Board races stick to familiar themes such as lowering class sizes, balancing budgets and improving teacher evaluation.
But the run-up to a special election Tuesday to fill a vacancy on the board of Virginia’s largest school system veered into national topics: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s agenda, transgender student rights and debate over changing the names of schools that honor figures from the Confederacy.
Voters will decide who should replace Jeanette Hough, who resigned in May after her husband accepted a job overseas. Hough, who held an at-large seat on the 12-member board, was elected with backing of the local Republican Party in 2015 and was one of three GOP-backed members.
Four candidates are vying for the seat.
Karen Keys-Gamarra, 57, a lawyer, has been endorsed by the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, the Fairfax Education Association and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.
Chris Grisafe, 37, a federal contractor who works on defense policy, has the backing of the Fairfax County Republican Committee.
Michael Owens, 43, a former teacher and now PTA president at Belvedere Elementary in Falls Church, and Sandra Allen, 48, a PTA volunteer at James Madison High in Vienna, are also running.
The board is officially nonpartisan, but in the past few years it has been starkly divided over issues such as honoring Confederate leaders and protecting the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
The board added LGBT topics to the family life curriculum and amended its nondiscrimination policy to include transgender students and staff members, moves that drew angry rebukes from some conservative parents. The school system has delayed implementing regulations that would spell out where transgender students can use the bathroom. The board voted last month to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High, which is named for a Rebel cavalry general. That decision culminated a two-year process that some said led to more polarization in the community.
The state and local Democratic Party has donated more than $60,000 to Keys-Gamarra’s campaign, which accounts for most of her fundraising total. Grisafe has raised about $25,000.
Grisafe, who ran for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 2011, has no children, but he said that good schools are critical to maintaining the county’s high standard of living.
“The quality, the value of property is all organized and essentially dependent on the quality of schools,” Grisafe said. “It impacts the desirability of community.”
A former Coast Guard member who grew up in Southern California, Grisafe said he recognizes the importance of teachers and mentors, who helped him become the first in his family to graduate from college. He said he wants the school system to rein in spending by implementing zero-base budgeting and by evaluating programs to determine their worth.
“I think we need to be wiser with how we’re investing our money,” Grisafe said at a recent candidate forum at McLean High School. He assailed the board for not allowing enough community input before its decision to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High and said he would support name changes at other schools only if the community favored it.
Grisafe said he wants to give transgender students access to private restrooms rather than allowing them to use bathrooms that don’t match the sex on their birth certificates, a situation that he said could make some students uncomfortable.
Keys-Gamarra, who ran unsuccessfully in 2015 to represent the Sully district on the School Board, is a lawyer appointed by courts to represent the best interests of children in custody battles. She said her experience advocating has given her a perspective that would be useful to the board.
“I believe that broad perspective and understanding is something that would allow me to help a lot of children and a lot of families at the school board level,” Keys-Gamarra said. She has three sons who graduated from Fairfax schools.
Keys-Gamarra has campaigned on protecting the school system from federal education cuts proposed by President Trump and supported by DeVos. Many of those proposals are unlikely to be enacted, but they are nonetheless controversial.
She said she also wants to raise teacher salaries and cut class sizes, which may be tough to deliver given that the school system faced a $50 million shortfall this year. But she believes she can raise more revenue by courting corporate partnerships and selling naming rights to stadiums, and she wants to press the legislature to give school boards taxing authority to raise funds. She also said she wants to ensure transgender students can use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity.
Owens said she wants to bring a nonpartisan approach to a board that she believes has fostered division in the community. She said that it should not have taken the board two years to vote on renaming J.E.B. Stuart High.
“I think there’s a lot of politics and I felt it would be really beneficial for the School Board to have an independent, nonpartisan voice,” Owens said. She said the board’s annual battles over the budget are also unproductive: “You have to come to the budget process with the perspective of a teacher and a parent.”
Allen, an immigrant from Bolivia, said she wants to advocate on behalf of minority students and address dropout rates among Latinos. “There needs to be a change in the current climate . . . making it more welcoming,” she said.