SCHOOL BOARD elections are generally sedate affairs, rarely getting much attention or generating any heat. Not so this year in Fairfax County, where there are lively contests to reshape the 12-member board in the Nov. 8 voting. The high-profile attention is appropriate: The next school board — which will include at least six new members — will have the critical job of replacing Jack D. Dale, retiring as superintendent in 2013. Mr. Dale made his announcement early in the hope that it would refocus campaign debate on the fundamental issues facing Virginia’s largest school system. Alas, that has not been the case, as some of the campaigns have taken on increasingly strident tones.
Voters should tune out the static of the races. A good place to start is with a fair assessment of the 175,000-student system and the job done by Mr. Dale and the current board. Having inherited one of the nation’s premier school systems, they have made steady and impressive progress. Student achievement has gone up, the dropout rate has gone down and the achievement gap, in which some minority students lag behind their white counterparts, has shrunk. Clearly, there were stumbles. There was too long a delay in addressing parental concerns that school discipline policies were too rigid, and the board could have done better in communicating with the public. But the fact that the board was seen to be in synergy with Mr. Dale on common goals should be seen as a strength, rather than — as some critics portray it — a failing.
To be decided this fall are three at-large seats and six district seats. Incumbents in two districts — Sandy S. Evans (Mason) and Patricia S. Reed (Providence) — are running unopposed while marketing consultant Tamara J. Derenak Kaufax is running unopposed to replace Brad Center in Lee District.
The decision by Martina Hone and James Raney not to seek reelection leaves Ilryong Moon as the only incumbent in the at-large race that includes six other candidates. He deserves to be reelected. On the board since 1995, Mr. Moon is a thoughtful member who does his homework. His experience in picking the two previous superintendents will be useful to the new board, and his background as a young émigré to this country makes him an important voice for English-language learners.
Most impressive of the newcomers are Theodore J. Velkoff and Lolita I. Mancheno-Smoak . Mr. Velkoff, with more than 10 years as a parent volunteer in the schools, has a deep knowledge of the issues and talks with passion about the need to develop new intellectual and social skills in students entering a 21st-century labor force. Ms. Mancheno-Smoak is one of the so-called reform candidates, but, unlike some of her counterparts who seem intent on refighting past controversies, she refreshingly is focused on the challenges confronting students. Foremost is her interest in the needs of at-risk students and shrinking the achievement gap, issues that are informed by her work as an educator and her immigrant background.
Megan O. McLaughlin, a former college admissions officer and mother of three Fairfax students, is the clear choice over Nell J. Hurley for the Braddock seat being vacated by Tessie Wilson. Ms. McLaughlin has distinguished herself as a parent advocate through her work with Fairgrade and the Fairfax Education Coalition. She is knowledgeable and hardworking and works for change in a collaborative way. Her opponent, also active in local school affairs, has a more rigid approach to school issues and we fear would try to micromanage school operations.
The campaign for the Hunter Mill seat being vacated by Stuart D. Gibson features two good candidates, but Pat M. Hynes has the edge over Nancy A. Lipton, counselor and parent activist. Ms. Hynes, a former lawyer who found her true calling in teaching, would bring the important perspective of the classroom to the board. Among her priorities: narrowing the kindergarten readiness gap.
Nowhere is the race for school board more intense than in Dranesville District, where incumbent Jane K. Strauss is being challenged by Louise K. Epstein, parent advocate who helped found Fairgrade. The board would be the worse off if Ms. Strauss, an 18-year veteran with incomparable knowledge of the system and its needs, were not reelected. Not only has she proven, as the board’s current chair, to be a steady hand during difficult budget times, but she’s shown a sensitivity and commitment to the needs of all students. Ms. Epstein, by contrast, has a record of single-minded advocacy for gifted and talented students, even if it comes at others’ expense. Particularly alarming is her enthusiasm for doing away with a staffing formula that provides extra supports for at-risk students.
In Mount Vernon, incumbent Daniel G. Storck gets our endorsement over challenger Michele Nellenbach. On the board since 2004, Mr. Storck has a reputation as a careful listener with a businessman’s appreciation for data. He’s also not afraid to do battle for things he believes in, as evidenced by his fight to restore summer school. He would provide important continuity. Ms. Nellenbach’s campaign seems to be steeped more in slogans like “put your children first” than any real substance.
The Springfield seat is being vacated by Elizabeth Bradsher, and retired businessman John F. Wittman is the better candidate over parent activist Elizabeth L. Schultz. Mr. Wittman has been active in the schools, but it is his experience in budgeting and contracting that would be an important contribution to the board. He is thoughtful on the issues and would bring common sense to problems. Ms. Schultz, despite her protestations about not being a single-issue candidate, seems to care mostly about revisiting the battle to close Clifton Elementary School.
Incumbent Kathy L. Smith deserves reelection in Sully District over challenger Sheila P. Ratnam. Ms. Smith, a former elementary teacher on the board since 2002, is astute on educational issues, with a keen interest in providing a richer and more rigorous curriculum. Ms. Ratnam’s promise of more transparency would be a poor trade for Ms. Smith’s expertise and experience.