By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Alexandria City School Board candidates gathered in the second of two virtual forums last weekend to prepare for the Nov. 2 general election.
The forum, which was held on Sunday by the League of Women Voters, began with 13 of the 15 candidates – Tammy Ignacio and Chris Harris did not appear in the forum – presenting a two-minute introduction detailing their campaign and why voters should consider them for one of the nine School Board seats. Then candidates separated into breakout rooms on Zoom where residents could virtually enter to ask questions and exit as they pleased.
Even though candidates represented each of the city’s three districts, most voters who virtually attended the forum resided in District B, for which there are seven candidates running. As a result, moderator Joan Porte asked every candidate to remain present for the first two rounds but that only District B candidates stay for all five of the originally planned 10-minute rounds.
The virtual forum format allowed residents to ask whatever questions were on their mind. However, certain topics, including critical race theory, whether or not to reinstitute school resource officers and how to bolster civic engagement in Alexandria City Public Schools, were at the forefront of voters’ minds.
On whether or not educators should teach critical race theory in schools, the response among the candidates was somewhat divided. Critical race theory refers to an academic framework originally developed in the 1970s by civil rights activists and legal scholars to help examine the ways in which racism and current racial inequities are not just products of individual biases but of systems and policy.
Retired foreign service specialist and candidate Debbie Ash expressed staunch opposition to the idea. Ash argued that CRT “sidetracks” students by placing them in divided groups and leading them to believe their skin color is either wrong or right.
“We’ve got to judge people by the contents of their character and their ability to join into society and to benefit society,” Ash said. “We want to raise up good citizens, and you can’t raise up good citizens if they’re fearful of one another. I believe critical race theory brings fear into the school.”
But educator Ashley Simpson Baird expressed support, a decision she said her experience as an educator helped with.
“Children always want to talk about the issues and ideas they hear the adults in their lives talking about or that they hear on the news,” Baird said. “I think we should empower educators to engage in those difficult or touchy conversations with kids because they are reliable, important adults in their lives who can have those meaningful conversations in developmentally and age-appropriate ways.”
When it came to school resource officers, a hotly contested topic over the past few months since City Council voted to reallocate the $800,000 in funding for SROs, the response was more unified.
Kelly Carmichael Booz, who served on the School Board from 2013 to 2015, said she disagreed with council’s decision to “abruptly end the school resource officers without community involvement.”
“We really did ourselves a disservice as a community in coming to what is best for our students,” Booz said, calling for deeper conversations about the racial issues present in the city while making sure students feel safe.
When ACPS parent Rebecca Wade asked candidate PreeAnn Johnson where she stood on the issue, the former James K. Polk principal kept her answer concise.
“Bring them back, bring them back, bring them back,” Johnson said, arguing there was a misunderstanding among council about the purpose of SROs. “We need to have a conversation with the police [and] sheriff’s department [about] working with officers. Especially in this climate, we need our kids to see them as positive role models.”
Another topic that cropped up at several breakout rooms was how to bolster civic engagement among students.
Bridget Shea Westfall, a former social worker, said the city’s close proximity to Washington, D.C. is a boon when it comes to students securing internships or externships with local and state government leaders.
“There are so many opportunities to connect students with people who work in public service. If that’s having a mentor or if it’s helping them find opportunities to get involved as a volunteer in the community on grassroots campaigns or national state campaigns, I think it’s really awesome,” Westfall said.
Westfall also emphasized the importance of promoting civil discourse and teaching people with divergent views how to talk to one another by establishing common ground.
Booz echoed these sentiments, arguing that schools over the years have not prioritized teaching civics and social studies as much as English and mathematics.
“The problem with that is we’ve had generations that have gone through the school system without a good focus on [those subjects] and a real knowledge gap in terms of how our country functions and how important democracy is,” Booz said, advocating that schools “get back to basics” and carve out more time for civics and social studies.
Baird received a question about whether she supported Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D.’s contract renewal that occurred in June as well as his overall performance. She said that a change in superintendent would prove to be more of a hindrance than a help to ACPS, especially given the district’s current concerns not only with recovering from the pandemic but also with upcoming modernizations, capacity issues and deferred maintenance.
“I don’t think he’s a perfect superintendent. I think he’s done some things well and some other things not so well,” Baird said. “I think continuity of leadership, even if it’s not perfect, is a better position for us to be in rather than trying to also look for a new superintendent while doing these other big things.”
District B candidate Ricardo Roberts was also present but did not move from the main session to host an individual room.
District A was represented on Sunday by Michelle Rief, Deanna “D” Ohlandt, Ish Boyle, Willie Bailey and Jacinta Greene.
Rief, a current School Board member, praised the board’s recent accomplishments, from renaming two schools “to better reflect our community’s values,” rebuilding Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, building a new Minnie Howard campus and helping to produce the highest on-time graduation rate and lowest drop-out rate.
Ohlandt, an educator, said her platform includes making sure the city’s future plans for the high school “include every one of our students on every pathway and on every background.”
Boyle, a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, said he is familiar with leadership and tumultuous environments. If elected to the School Board, Boyle promised to prioritize student safety and use his experience to “collaborate, guide decisions, shape policy and create winning teams in a culture of excellence.”
Bailey, a 30-year firefighter and former City Council member, advocated for better city leadership and said his experience running a nonprofit, volunteering and coaching sports would assist with this.
“Some of the things I’ve done throughout my life, I feel I’ve been really primed to help the school system out,” he said.
Greene, a current School Board member, said her top priorities are improving infrastructure, closing the achievement gap and hiring and retaining top-notch teachers by providing them with the best resources available.
“They are the backbone of our school system and we must take care of them,” Greene said.
District C included candidates Meagan Alderton, current School Board chair, and Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi, former PTA president at Samuel Tucker Elementary School.
As an immigrant from Alexandria, Egypt who grew up under a dictatorship, Elnoubi said he is running for School Board to “fight for the principles, values and extend opportunities that made my story possible.” He said he plans to work toward creating a school system that is equitable and robust where every student’s academic and social-emotional needs are met. He also advocated for solving issues surrounding overcapacity and aging school buildings.
Alderton said her campaign is predicated on three pillars: consistency, continuity and leadership.
“We are at a critical juncture in education where we have a revolving door of people going in and out; that is not beneficial to our students and that is not beneficial to our school system,” Alderton said, advocating specifically for diversity in leaders.
Candidates also shared general thoughts on redistricting, banning books, the future of ACPS and their individual qualifications.
Another virtual School Board forum, hosted by the Alexandria PTA Council, will take place tonight at 7 p.m. via Zoom.
Early voting for the November election has begun. For more information, visit https://vote.elections.virginia.gov/VoterInformation.