By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Community members got to know school board candidates in their districts at a forum organized by the Alexandria PTA Council at T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard Campus on Oct. 25.
The two-part forum was structured so that voters could see their candidates first with the entire candidate pool and later separated by district. In the first hour of the forum, all 16 candidates answered a few questions in front of the whole audience, and in the second portion, they split off by district to answer questions submitted by attendees.
As candidates discussed the issues facing Alexandria City Public Schools, several said they did sound like broken records when it came to major topics like capacity and facility maintenance.
Another commonality several school board candidates expressed was an eagerness to continue improving the relationship between ACPS and the city. Over the past year, both school and city leaders have praised the two institutions’ ability to work together.
At the forum, 16 school board candidates weighed in on how they’d contribute to that critical relationship with a question about collaboration: What makes you uniquely qualified to collaborate with fellow school board members and city council?
Many candidates relied on their professional experience.
Chris Suarez, District A, an attorney and co-founder of a nonprofit that raises awareness about school diversity issues, said he’s used to playing the mediator.
“I have to listen a lot to a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different folks,” Suarez said. “As one of the folks in my career, I really have to mediate a lot of disputes and think outside the box to bring people together and that’s something I would do if elected.”
John Lennon, District C, a former journalist and executive at the Voice of America, cited his leadership experience.
“What made me unique in coming to ACPS was my extensive career as a manager in federal government,” he said. “… Those are the kinds of management and executive skills that I can bring to bear in working with the school board in a collaborative sense and in the same way with the city council and our new mayor.”
Jacinta Greene, District A, said her professional budgeting experience would help her in advocating for ACPS funding.
“I spent 10 years in corporate America managing a multi-million dollar budget for McDonald’s,” she said, “and with that multi-million dollar budget, we worked with over 75 owner operators, and to convince an owner operator that’s owned a restaurant for 50 years to give you money, convincing city council to give you money would be a piece of cake.”
Jewelyn Cosgrove, District B, works in federal government affairs for Healthcare Distribution Alliance. She joked about her multi-faceted collaboration skills.
“My day job is getting members of Congress to agree with each other. My night job is getting my toddler to agree to go to bed,” she said. “… But in all seriousness, what I have to bring to the board is I have an understanding of how to bring stakeholders with varied perspectives and varied priorities come together to achieve common goals.”
Meagan Alderton, District C, said her experience within ACPS gives her unique insight.
“Currently what I do is work with leadership in the district to determine the quality of the special education services that are provided to students with disabilities,” she said. “That is a need that requires specific knowledge and I think it’s really important to have someone bring that to the board.”
Board Vice Chair Cindy Anderson, District B, said that in addition to her institutional knowledge of ACPS, her professional background has proven helpful on the board.
“One of the surprises, actually, in terms of relevant knowledge and experience that I used during this term was my property management and construction knowledge, because of all the building and buying buildings,” she said. “I felt comfortable because I’ve done things like that before and I really felt it was valuable.”
Some candidates touted their personal backgrounds rather than their professional backgrounds.
Abigail Wacek, District B, said her roots in the city gave her valuable knowledge.
“I’ve lived in Alexandria for a very long time,” Wacek said. “I know this city. I plan on spending the rest of my time here in this city and so I’d very much like to see the school board work with the city. … I am open-minded, and I’m willing to listen to what everyone has to say so that we can come up with a strategy that works.”
Another lifelong Alexandrian, Chris Harris, District A, said his experience being involved in different city groups has taught him about negotiating.
“As president of NAACP and vice chair of the Human Rights Commission, I know how to advocate and I’ve done a lot of communicating and I understand that it’s not always about agreeing,” Harris said. “… I believe that some of the problems we have is that we don’t know how to come up with a shared vision. … If we come up with a shared vision to get things done, we move forward.”
Michelle Rief, District B, said her background in education and, specifically, higher education has prepared her well for a seat on the board.
“One thing that sets me apart is that I have a PhD in African American studies,” she said. “I have given talks about children’s racial identity development, and I completed a program with Arlington Public Schools about challenging racism as a way to try to work on closing the achievement gap. … I think that makes me uniquely situated to really address some of these challenges in our school board.”
Dianara Saget, District C, said her heritage would be beneficial in bridging communications with ACPS’ Hispanic population.
“I think being Latina is a plus for the school board,” she said. “… Being a parent for ACPS definitely has given me the experience to see things in a different light, to be able to collaborate with the people on the board, with my experiences and just being involved in my community.”
Veronica Nolan, District B, said her personal style, her experience and her interest would lend well to collaboration.
“I believe in the power of collaboration and I can see that you’re going to get the best outcome through collaboration,” Nolan said. “Through professional experience as a classroom teacher I have created collaborative class environments. … I’m just so committed and passionate to ACPS that we’re not going to push forward any of our bulk unless we collaborate as a school board.”
Margaret Lorber, another District B incumbent school board member, said being on the board for the past three years has helped her realize what her greatest contributions were: her relationships.
“I see that my unique contribution has been how well I know the families in our school system,” Lorber said. “… I think one of the reasons that the B district members have bonded so well together is that we each value the experience that each of us brings to the table, and the experience I brought was the experience of being inside the system with the families.”
Some candidates – both newcomers and incumbents – said they already had or were working on establishing relationships with city leaders.
Marc Solomon, District A, said recognizing the talent among the school board and council candidates has allowed him to build relationships.
“Frankly, everybody up here would be great on school board,” Solomon said, “and I think coming from that place, knowing that everybody has something to add, I have great relationships as a result with incoming and current city councilmembers and I hope to have great relationships with everybody on A, B and C, and I have a history of doing that.”
Heather Thornton, District C, said even though she just recently returned to Alexandria, she’s already meeting with key city players.
“I made it my priority to meet with everyone that I could possibly talk to in the city so I can effectively understand where they’re coming from and how we can best collaborate, because if I’m elected to the school board, I want those relationships to already be established,” she said.
School Board Chair Ramee Gentry, District C, said one of her greatest accomplishments during her time on the board has been strengthening the relationship between ACPS and the city.
“I have worked diligently to develop relationships with the city council,” Gentry said. “… I have particularly focused on developing a relationship with Justin Wilson, and I believe that my word in terms of the joint facilities investment task force and really trying to align our two budgets has been crucial. I really feel that it is important to continue that into the next board.”
Another incumbent, Bill Campbell, District A, said he would use his institutional school board knowledge to help the newcomers who are elected.
“We’re going to have a new mayor, four new city council members, we’re going to have at least four new school board members, and we have a new city attorney, and we have a new superintendent. I’m excited about the youngsters up here and I’m willing to … help them out. I have done this for five and a half years, so I’ve proven my collaborative abilities,” he said.
The General Election is November 6. For more information about voting in Alexandria, visit www.alexandriava.gov/elections.