FAIRFAX COUNTY Schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s announcement that he will not seek another term should refocus debate in the county’s School Board elections. Instead of dwelling on past controversies — Was it right to close Clifton Elementary? Were discipline policies overly strict? How about grading? — the conversation needs to shift to the future and how the school system can best meet the challenges of the coming decade.

Mr. Dale’s decision to retire when his term ends in June 2013 comes amid unusually spirited campaigns for control of the board. Half of the board’s 12 members are not seeking reelection Nov. 8; the three at-large seats and six of the nine district seats are being contested. Board races generally fly under the political radar — overshadowed by state or county government races — but the large number of open seats have made them, as The Post’s Fredrick Kunkle reported, this year’s marquee event in Fairfax politics.

Mr. Dale’s tenure, since 2004, as head of the largest school system in Virginia and the Washington area has been largely a success. The 175,000-student system, long seen as among the nation’s best, witnessed steady growth in student achievement, a decline in the dropout rate and a narrowing of the achievement gap in which African American and Latino students lag behind white and Asian students. Among his signature accomplishments was launching the priority schools initiative, which provides additional support to those schools that need it most as they aim to reach student achievement goals.

Yet a series of high-profile controversies — over school district boundaries, student discipline and budget cuts — have made Mr. Dale a lightning rod in the elections. Indeed, to listen to some of the campaign rhetoric, one would think Mr. Dale’s name was on the ballot and the job of a school board was to run day-to-day school operations.

By taking himself out of the equation, Mr. Dale rightly puts the emphasis on the key questions the candidates should be asked. Among them, he told The Post, are “Do you believe all kids can learn? Do you believe we should address the needs of our most needy students equally as well as the needs of our most gifted students so they both can be successful?” How the candidates answer those questions will frame the new board’s most important task: replacing Mr. Dale.