As Tuesdays special election for the Alexandria School Board approaches, candidates are in the midst of their final push for the seat made vacant when former chair Clair Eberwein resigned to move to Austria.
At a forum last Thursday, candidates fielded questions from the PTA Council on topics ranging from diversity to curricula to fiscal responsibility. While candidates John Leary, Bernie Schulz, Elynn Simons and Marc Williams offered little in the way of specific courses of action, the forums focus often circled back to strategic planning, student and community involvement, higher education, fiscal responsibility and internal governance of the school board and central office.
After the forum, the Times spoke with the candidates separately to flesh out some of the key issues in this race.
Elynn Simons hopes that her interaction with students, parents and teachers during her 18 years as a tutor in the city will give her the inside track. She has taught SAT and PSAT prep courses at T.C. Williams for eight years and has been a substitute teacher in the system for two years. Her campaign, run in part by former students, focused on curriculum, fiscal responsibility and central office reform. She said that her unique perspective as an educator will help her bridge the gaps between schools, parents, teachers and students.
When I tutor with a student the first thing I try to do is meet with the teacher and say, OK lets see how we can make this work, Simons said. Its inside information, so to speak. So that gives me a unique perspective. When Im teaching summer school, teachers talk to me, so I know whats going on in our schools. I know the curriculum: Some of it works and some of it doesnt. I would see myself as a bridge in some ways.
Simons is also wary of the school boards role, which is technically to hire the superintendent. She believes the board should set the tone of the school system.
It is my understanding that the school board is responsible for hiring the superintendent, Simons said. Beyond that we have no authority to hire or fire or anything. I would encourage the superintendent to look at central administration and decide if it has become too large. My perception from the community is that it has become too top heavy
As for a non-voting student member on the board, Simons would have to really think about if it would be a non-voting member as opposed to a voting one. The same way that teachers talk to me all the time, students do too. I would encourage that. The students obviously have the biggest stake in all this.
Right now I think we need to do a better job of long-range planning, Simons said. Ive seen too many times that were wasting money on things that could have been avoided had we planned for them.
Simons also suggested working with the Chamber of Commerce and realtors to promote the public school system so people moving to Alexandria know that our schools are wonderful.
Marc Williams works for IBMs Governmental Programs group, where he is responsible for the companys global intellectual property policy. He has worked with the school system on matters pertaining to curricula, including helping to achieve open enrollment honors language arts and social studies classes for middle school students. His campaign has focused on curricula for the 21st century and giving students what they need to succeed.
At IBM, a couple things were required to do is monitor whats changing in the marketplace and anticipate what the changes and trends are, Williams said. And I think thats a very important aspect of being a board member; picking a super, presenting vision and presenting a budget that implements those visions and priorities.
Williams also expressed concern for the image of the school board, and said he wants to move the focus back to the citys students. For me, over the last decade I have three children in the public schools and one of the things that [my wife and I] have noticed is that there seems to be a shift from what kids can do to what kids cant do, Williams said. [Focusing on what they cant do] incorrectly presents an image that we dont have a very good school system.
As part of an international business, Williams sees the school systems curricula as a potential gateway to succeeding in a connected world. Echoing the theme of other candidates, he also believes a community more connected to the schools is necessary.
Our kids truly are growing up in a very different world and theyll be competing on a global basis, he said. They need creativity, critical thinking skills, and we need to instill in them a lifelong love of learning. Lets talk to our teachers; theyre a group that obviously has expertise from being on the front lines. Lets facilitate that kind of dialogue.
On the question of whether all high school graduates should go to college, Williams said, I think that we should ask the community what the community wants. A father I met with told me, We did not come to this country to have our children fail. The theme of the whole meeting was how are we going to have kids succeed. College is a goal, and I think that we ought to help those who go to college to realize that goal. We need to offer others what they need as well, which is why vocational programs are important.
Williams said the most enjoyable and educational part of his campaign was just getting out and talking to as many people as I can. When Im elected I want to keep talking to people. I think its essential. Dialogue is better for the system as a whole.
John Leary is perhaps the front-runner in the election, having gained the endorsement from the Education Association of Alexandria, an organization that represents Alexandria City Public Schools teachers. A lifelong resident of Rosemont and a product of the school system, Leary graduated from T.C. Williams in the 1980s.
His ideas for the school system revolve around a transparent school board, retaining and attracting quality teachers, curricula and strategic planning.
The things that I hope to do are things that that were identified in the governors efficiency audit, he said. The areas we really flagged and the areas where we need to work on relate to the school boards governance and accountability.
Leary added that with the strategic planning process happening this year, the board needs to make sure that the process is transparent, not only for the community, but also for Superintendent Morton Sherman. I feel we just need to make sure that Dr. Sherman has gets a clear picture, Leary said. Its going to be very difficult for him to be successful if he doesnt have a very clear set of objectives and goals. A strategic plan desperately needs to be developed to be fair to him.
To make the process run more smoothly and involve the community, Leary said he wants all school board meetings to be broadcast on both television and the Internet.
Im running to get citizens engaged, Leary said. The [schools] challenges are everyones.
Bernie Schulz hopes that voters will be attracted to his 16 years of working in education. Currently an administrator at American University, Schulz has served on the school boards Talented and Gifted Advisory Committee and is a member of various civic organizations.
Student interaction was one of Schulzs major focal points throughout the campaign and at the District B forum. He expressed the need for a formalized system in which board members and students could interact, suggesting that a ninth seat be created for a T.C. Williams student, who would act as a liaison to the board.
My role in my current job is constantly seeking feedback from students in a formal way, Schulz said. I personally am not going to make the assumption of what the student experience has been, but actually getting the perspective of students in a formalized way, getting in touch with them, will enable the board.
Schulz also expressed a need to involve the community and reevaluate the role of the central office, saying, As
board members we should be engaging all stakeholders in the process [to make] a vision for the future. What are the roles of the student, teacher and parent? What authority are they given? Central administration and the board is there to empower these stakeholders to carry out the plan.
I know what a board should be doing and is not doing. Over the last years, there has been an inconsistency of how they deal with themselves. The central administration is not a policy center I think that we should revisit the role and function of all the stakeholders parents, teachers, principal, the student voice and how to holistically look at all those.
The special School Board District B election is Aug. 12.