As candidates for Alexandrias highest ranking governing body blast off their campaigns with the first City Council debates this week, so too do School Board candidates, who hope to gain positions as the education systems shepherds.
The election climate provides a remarkable stage for both panels this year: The economy is down, a budget will be passed days before the May 5 election and the school system is projected to be busting at its seams in terms of enrollment, all of this while going through major systemic changes aimed at bolstering student achievement under budget constraints. The next three years of leadership on both the Council and the Board are of the utmost importance in light of the economic landscape before the two organizations.
Some who are candidates now will be charged with making decisions that will greatly influence the citys future. We charge the citys potential leaders to engage and even indulge in discourse on the following issues in the upcoming forums and throughout their campaigns:
For City Council Candidates
The economy: There is no easy fix to a problem that permeates the country. But measures can be taken to tailor economic development to the specific issues facing the city. Candidates should look at ways to streamline the process of bringing businesses into town, as well as look at ways to lessen the blow on existing small businesses that continue to have the wind knocked out of them.
If it takes a higher tax burden on the citys homeowners to gain a little wiggle-room revenue down the road, candidates should make sure the measure is taken only after they explore ways to cut city programs that overlap one another and streamline other departments. We must ask ourselves as a city, What services are we willing to live without? Perhaps some development projects whose implementation has not already begun could be put on hold until the economy plays itself out further. Development and growth especially the development destined for the West End are important and necessary goals for the city, but not at the expense of present human needs.
Affordable and public housing: The majority of Alexandrias city workforce cannot afford to live in the city in which they work. Not just committing to developing affordable housing but proactively solving what seems to be a conundrum for the city must be a topic of discussion for the candidates.
As far as public housing goes, the future of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority must be discussed candidly its positive and negative segments so that its policies regarding tenants and units are enforced and the organization is held accountable for its (in)actions.
Environment and transportation: The Eco-City initiative to make the city more environmentally sustainable is a progressive one. While much research, planning and community involvement has gone into the initiative, candidates should discuss how to aggressively implement the programs necessary to paint Alexandria with a green brush especially considering that becoming more energy efficient makes our wallets and pocketbooks more efficient, too.
Transportation issues are linked directly to the environment. The city has worked toward providing more efficient public transit by committing to Metro stations and rapid transit bus routes to connect the city, namely the West End. Candidates should expand on how to best deal with the increase in congestion expected by the federal BRAC project at the Mark Center as well as think outside the box to entice residents toward group travel.
For School Board Candidates:
The achievement gap: When new Superintendent Morton Sherman came to town, one of his most challenging goals and one he realized was evident from the beginning was closing the achievement gap between minority students and white students in the school system. Issues involving race can be touchy, which the superintendent admitted upon taking over the post. But its this very reason that it needs to be discussed in an open manner without shying away from the facts:
Hispanic students and black students underperform when compared to white students in the school division, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Whether you agree with the No Child Left Behind Act or not, each student is given the same standardized test that resulted from the legislation. Ninety-three percent of white students passed the test compared to 75 percent of black students and 74 percent of Hispanic students. Whites in Alexandria public schools perform better than their counterparts throughout the state, while blacks and Hispanics perform worse. The disparity requires serious attention and action without skirting away from the obvious statistics.
Adjusting to enrollment: An unexpected enrollment surge crept up on the school system this academic year in the midst of a sea change of policies brought on by the new superintendent, concerned parents and students. Enrollment is expected to rise more in the coming years, even to the point where the city may need two new elementary schools to host new Alexandrians by 2015. How will the candidates deal with balancing the expected surge with the relative equilibrium in the current school system? Its solution should be approached pragmatically, and should be on the minds and in the debate of candidates during the forum.
The IB program: Again, the school system is in the midst of a transition surrounded by a hindering economy, high enrollment projections and an achievement gap to balance. The International Baccalaureate program is a proven education method with a worldly focus and the early stages of implementation have begun in our school system. As it is early, candidates have a chance to affect the way the IB becomes the norm, but not at the expense of the current system.
The questions that voters face on May 5 will be answered by how the candidates address their issues through the upcoming forums and debate. As much as possible these issues should be brought to the forefront with specific vocabulary, not semantics. And by Election Day, the decision for voters should be a clear one, not fogged by skirting the real issues pertinent to the community during this political, economic and social moment.