School board candidates flex their muscles ahead of November election

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School board candidates flex their muscles ahead of November election
(Courtesy photo)
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By Chris Teale and Erich Wagner (File photo)

The winds of change are set to blow through the ranks of the Alexandria City School Board this year, with three current members not running for re-election and several new faces chasing hard for their positions and those of the incumbents trying for another term.

Current board members Stephanie Kapsis, Justin Keating and Marc Williams all have announced they will not seek re-election, with the latter two leaving District B and Kapsis departing from her position in District A.

It has been a busy three years for the school board, which appointed a new superintendent in Alvin Crawley, opened a new Jefferson-Houston School, began the process toward building a new Patrick Henry Elementary School and setting up the framework for redistricting, which has not been done since 1999.

Ahead of the November 3 election, candidates already are campaigning hard and refining their messages, with voters set to decide who their nine representatives from across three districts will be. With three slots available in each district, there is plenty at stake for those involved.

DISTRICT A

In District A, there are three candidates for the three positions, with incumbent chairwoman Karen Graf and current board member Bill Campbell running unopposed alongside newcomer Harold Cardwell. With Kapsis stepping aside at the end of this term, the path is clear for the three to take their positions.

Cardwell comes into the election as an Alexandria native who graduated from T.C. Williams in 1982. He has three children enrolled in Alexandria City Public Schools, and served on the board and as president of the Mount Vernon Community School PTA. A water resource engineer by trade, Cardwell believes ACPS needs to make sure it is serving every student as well as possible, especially given learning disparities prevalent even in the earliest years.

“The challenges are that kids are coming into the system at all different levels of current achievement,” he said. “At kindergarten, you’ve got kids who are almost reading, or who are reading, and kids who have never seen a book. That makes it really tough for the teachers who are seeing that. We’ve got kids who have a lot of issues, don’t have the parental support that we might all like for those kids to make sure that they put education as a priority. Those are huge issues there.”

Cardwell touts his fluent Spanish as a way he hopes to connect with a diverse group of parents and students across the school system, and said he wants to help get the best education possible for every student, something he believes he received himself in ACPS.

“I want to make sure that my kids and other kids in the city get the really high-quality education that I think everybody in the city really wants for them,” he said. “That’s the undercurrent of why I would be running, why I’m running. I’m invested in the system, I think I can do a good job and we’ve got a lot of great programs in the city that we can build upon.

“Do we have challenges? Yes, absolutely. But I’m hopeful I can contribute to making that good system even better.”

DISTRICT B

Kelly Booz is the solitary incumbent from District B seeking re-election, going up against three newcomers vying for three District B slots. She believes the continuity she would bring if re-elected would be beneficial, especially with at least three new board members joining in January.

“I really enjoyed and valued the time I spent the last two and a half years on the board, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot but we still have so much more to do,” she said. “Being the only incumbent running in the B district, I think I offer a good perspective on what the projects we’ve been working on like redistricting and opening a new school at Jefferson-Houston and the Patrick Henry school that will be opening that we’re working on right now.”

During her term on the board, Booz counts her selection by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to be part of the Virginia Standards of Learning Innovation Committee as one of her proudest moments. Working with 27 other committee members, Booz helped examine the commonwealth’s standardized testing system, and believes that experience has shaped her into an effective policymaker at both the city and state level.

“It was certainly a proud achievement [to serve on the SOL committee], as having the experience as a board member but also somebody who has worked throughout the commonwealth on education and standards, I think I offer a really good perspective there,” she said. “I was in Alexandria working on the community engagement plan and committee and coming up with a plan of action for Alexandria to help them improve some of the communication networks and channels that we have. There’s still a ways to go there, but I’m proud of the work that our committee did in looking at that particular area.”

Moving forward, Booz said she is especially looking forward to being part of the redistricting steering committee, and is hopeful of working with Crawley and a number of other new members of leadership.

“The biggest thing that I’m hearing from everyone right now is redistricting,” she said. “I’m serving on the redistricting steering committee and I think that’s going to be a huge focus for us over the next six months or so or more as it goes through that particular process.”

Among the newcomers to the District B field is Mimi Goff. She said she wants to run for school board because she wants to better support the city’s teachers and students, as well as help find new ways to deal with the district’s fiscal constraints.

“The school board will need more support from the citizens and city council in order to obtain monies needed to update or rebuild the much-needed school structures that are in decline,” she said in an email. “The school board must know the difference between wish lists, needs and true priorities.”

Candidate Cindy Anderson said she is a product of ACPS and her two children graduated from T.C. Williams in 2011 and 2013. After serving as a PTA president and president of the PTA council, she feels now is the right time to find a new role in shaping the district.

“I’m concerned about the overcrowding and what we’ll do to accommodate the additional students and provide adequate classroom space,” Anderson said. “I know redistricting is on the table, and it would be important to do that correctly and at the right time.”

Anderson also stressed that each school needs a strong principal who would be committed to finding the right teachers for their students.

“From my time, what I’ve come to believe is you need really excellent principals, and when you get that, you tend to get excellent teachers and the whole system works very well,” she said. “My big thing is to make sure we have the right principals and teachers as well as the right training. New teachers need mentoring to make sure they become great teachers.”

Candidates Margaret Lorber and Veronica Nolan did not return calls for comment.

DISTRICT C

In District C, the three incumbent members — vice chairman Chris Lewis, Ronnie Campbell and Pat Hennig — face challenges from two newcomers in Ramee Gentry and Daria Dillard.

Gentry has 11-year-old twins in ACPS and has served on the PTAs at both Samuel Tucker Elementary School and Francis Hammond Middle School as well as in various other volunteer capacities. She feels she is ready to take the next step and join the school board, and said she wants to improve community engagement and communication between citizens and the school system.

“I think that one of the biggest challenges ACPS has is that there’s so much passion around the school system, which is great, but I think that sometimes there’s a disconnect between perception and reality,” she said. “[I] think sometimes there can be a communication disconnect between the concerns of the community and also the school system being able to reach out and really help people understand what’s happening with the schools both good and bad. I think there’s a lot of good going on that maybe some people aren’t aware of, but I think there are some very specific things that we can work on and that those things are the kind of things that can be addressed.”

In addition, Gentry says she is looking to improve accountability, access and achievement, meaning that programs must be evaluated in a transparent way, reducing disparities in programming between schools and encouraging students to achieve everything they can regardless of background.

“As far as accountability goes, whether it’s financial or whether it’s a particular educational policy or evaluating a particular program and how successful or not successful it is, there just needs to be a very, very clear easy for everyone to understand system of accountability,” she said. “If we’re going to do program ‘X,’ before we roll out program ‘X’ or before we expand program ‘X,’ we all need to have a very clear understanding of why we are doing this program and what kind of goals we are hoping to achieve and how would we measure that so that everyone would have this expectation that this certain things, we would see certain measures of performance out of that.”

Joining her on the ballot is ACPS teacher Daria Dillard, who taught math at T.C. Williams for 10th, 11th and 12th graders from December 2014 until June of this year. She arrived in the system having also taught in Fairfax and Prince George’s counties as well as D.C. Public Schools, and is the third generation of her family to enter the profession. Dillard was also president of the Samuel Tucker Elementary School PTA, and has stepped forward because she feels there is not enough teaching experience among current board members.

“We have great members on there that have a lot of business experience in terms of working with the budget and reaching out to the community and what they need,” she said. “But in terms of what is needed in our schools and understanding every single step along the path of decisions that are made, that’s really lacking.

“We need a different, fresh perspective on the school board. I would be that.”

Dillard has a number of issues that she wishes to address, including looking to improve professional development for teachers and learning best practices from neighboring jurisdictions.

“I’m looking to address class size and classroom configurations, our facilities and investing in schools,” she said. “I believe the new Patrick Henry is slated to be an 800-student school, but the enrollment at Patrick Henry is already there right now. … Additionally, I would like to see more support given to our teachers in the classroom.”

Chris Lewis, who currently serves as the school board’s vice chairman, prides himself on listening to everyone’s perspective and being an advocate for those who are not as involved in the board’s activities but are interested in the decisions that they make.

“We have a school division that has been making strides but needs to really be moved to the next level,” Lewis said. “We need to make sure that all students are being served and that those students who slip through the gaps are being helped. I’ve been very much focused on the issues of serving all students, our various achievement gaps whether it’s for low-income students or special education students or ELL or minority students.”

Lewis also prides himself as being someone who asks tough questions, and said the work that has begun with middle school reform and facilities planning needs to be maintained to make sure it is effective.

“We want to continue to target our services and continue to look at the data, which over the last year and a half we’ve been looking closer with the superintendent school-by-school and holding schools accountable for meeting specific goals, not just division-wide goals, so if there’s an issue at one school they can address it while other schools can focus on needs that are more specific to their school,” he said. “Middle school reform did not end with our vote. It takes continued engagement from leadership, from school board members, from community members, from parents to make the changes at our middle schools work.”

Ronnie Campbell is also seeking re-election and has served on the school board since 2006. She cites her experience as an important reason she should be re-elected, and sees it as something she can use to help newcomers to the board. Campbell also says there is plenty left for her and the board to achieve.

“I would like to leave with all the schools fully accredited, that would be a goal,” she said. “I would like to see a really post-graduate program for the kids when they get out of school so that they have a plan of what they’re going to do next, whether they’re students with special needs or ELL students or low-income students as well as the ones that we know are planning on going on to college.”

Campbell also touted her work to reinstitute summer school this year. Moving forward, she would like to examine the possibility of public-private partnerships between businesses, nonprofits and the school system to leverage additional funding. She cites the examples of other systems in Northern Virginia utilizing such partnerships, and believes it can be done in Alexandria.

“I really want to dig deep into the public-private partnership and see if there’s something there that we can do, without spending a fortune,” she said. “There are areas in Northern Virginia that do a lot of work with partners, and I think them working with getting more grants they can work with our students without costing us additional money and keeps us from hiring additional support staff and teachers and specialists that we need.”

Hennig did not return calls for comment.

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