The most bitter political battles in Fairfax County center around education funding, with the school board, teachers and parent activists seeking big increases each spring, and the board of supervisors calling those requests excessive.
Next Tuesday’s elections offer a chance to change that dynamic: three current or former school board members are running for supervisor, and each has made education funding a key part of his or her platform.
But their candidacies, for the most part, have generated lukewarm interest from the parents, teachers and activists who so dependably lobby the board each spring.
The candidates, and political observers in the region’s largest jurisdiction say there are four reasons: The limited influence of teachers unions in Virginia; general apathy over local elections, with no statewide or national offices on the ballot; a sense of futility among activists who have fought for years for more funding; and less political activism in the county’s poorest neighborhoods, where the need for funding is greatest.
“I just don’t see a whole lot of activity out there,” lamented former state Del. Jim Dillard (R), who co-founded a group called Fully Fund Fairfax that lobbied for more schools money last spring but has been dormant this election cycle.
“I was hoping that group might take a more active role in actually trying to influence the voting population,” Dillard said. “But that never really occurred.”
Of the three candidates for supervisor who have school board experience, all of whom are Democrats, current board member Dan Storck has the best shot at victory. He is running against Republican Jane Gandee to fill outgoing Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland’s seat in the heavily Democratic Mount Vernon district, home to many of the system’s poorest, most crowded schools.
Storck was endorsed by county’s two teachers unions, but said that has not produced significant contributions or volunteers — “definitely not as much as I want.”
Noting that low-income, predominantly immigrant neighborhoods tend to be less involved politically, he said the most acute funding needs would likely have more resonance if they were more prevalent in wealthier parts of the county.
Gandee, his opponent, argued that voters want to see wasteful spending cut from the nation’s 10th-largest school system before considering any budget increases. “There needs to be an audit,” she said. “We need to look at these things line-by-line.”
In the mostly middle-class Braddock District, former school board member Janet Oleszek (D) is advocating a restaurant meal tax to raise money for schools. Oleszek, who was on the school board from 2004 to 2008, is seeking to unseat Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock,) who beat her four years ago by just 475 votes out of nearly 24,000 cast.
Cook favors pressuring Richmond for more schools money and is not as adamant about the issue in the face of other service needs in the county.
The Fairfax Education Association did not endorse a candidate in the Braddock race. The other union — the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers — endorsed Oleszek, but so far has spent more resources on a broad advertising campaign that calls for more spending on schools and other infrastructure.
“Am I delighted that people want to run for the Board of Supervisors who care about the quality and focus on public education? Oh, absolutely,” said Steve Greenburg, president of the federation. But, he added, “my members, beyond public education, just believe in funding the infrastructure of their community.”
Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said “there’s a lot of fear” among teachers about getting involved in elections because of relatively weak union protections under Virginia’s Right-to-Work law. “They can under no circumstances be political at all at work,” Adams said. “So, they don’t want to be seen as political outside of work either.”
As for parents, many are frustrated after trying for years to secure more money for schools, said David Edelman, vice president of advocacy for the 59,000-member Fairfax County Council of PTAs.
“There’s a definite sense of fatigue,”Edelman said. “There is a sense of: Why isn’t this working? Why aren’t the school board and the board of supervisors figuring this out for themselves?”
Jessica Swanson, who along with Oleszek helped found Fully Fund Fairfax, said one reason the group went dormant is that “probably a lot of us are too busy.”
Beyond testifying during budget negotiations last spring, “we didn’t really have a set plan as to what we would achieve,” said Swanson, who ran for supervisor but lost in the Democratic primary to longtime incumbent Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason).
School board member Kathy Smith, who is vying to replace outgoing Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully), said voters in that western district haven’t expressed great concern about school funding.
“For me, running for the board of supervisors has to be more than about schools,” she said. At the same time, voters who are worried about the education budget know “I’m going to be able to come in and hit the ground running.”
Smith’s opponent, Republican John Guevara, did not respond to questions about school funding.
The lack of urgency on school issues showed during a recent candidate’s forum, where Cook, Oleszek and several school board candidates fielded questions from a meager crowd of about 35-- half of them high school students on a class assignment.
“We’ve been getting low turnouts like this at a lot of our forums,” school board member Ryan McElveen said before the event started, exhaling as he surveyed the mostly empty room.