School Board hopefuls debate virtually

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School Board hopefuls debate virtually
School Board virtual forum. (Photo/PTAC)
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By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

Alexandria School Board candidates gathered on Oct. 13 for a virtual debate ahead of the Nov. 2 general election. Hosted by the Alexandria PTA Council, the forum included all School Board candidates except for Ricardo Roberts.

The debate covered topics like building modernization, school safety and students with disabilities, some of which drew disparate answers from candidates but most of which highlighted many common goals.

There are currently 15 candidates across three districts vying for nine School Board seats, with seven candidates in District B, five in District A and three in District C. After delving deeply into a District B forum in our Oct. 14 issue, the Times is focusing this story on the District A and C candidates who did not have as much of an opportunity to share their views last time around. For video of the full Oct. 13 District B debate, visit https://www.facebook.com/alexandriaptac/ videos/2630773467231429 or read our coverage of the Oct. 10 forum here: https://alextimes.com/2021/10/school-board-form-yields-big-turnout-from-district-b-constituents/.

District A

Moderators April Bryant and Megan Reing asked District A candidates open-ended questions, most of which yielded generally unanimous responses.

The first question asked how candidates would go about working with fellow city leaders and community members with differing political views to best support students. Resulting answers emphasized the importance of listening, collaborating and prioritizing the shared core values outlined in ACPS’ strategic plan.

“We will have differences in how to enact those values, but we have to agree on what the values are that we’re working towards,” candidate Deanna “D” Ohlandt, an educator, said.

When candidates were asked about how to address ACPS’ years’ worth of deferred facility maintenance, Willie Bailey, a former City Council member, and Ish Boyle, a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, advocated for bringing in neutral third parties to evaluate the conditions of existing buildings. Calling the issue a “Herculean challenge” and insisting some of the onus be removed from staff members, Boyle urged the consideration of public-private partnerships for maintenance.

Incumbent School Board members Jacinta Greene and Michelle Rief both said the current board has placed an immense focus on addressing building issues, pointing to the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School modernization, new Minnie Howard Campus and recent purchase of a building on the West End.

“One of the things that’s going to improve our buildings is to build new ones because they’re so old, and we’ve really prioritized that,” Rief said. “… I’m proud we’ve adopted a very ambitious capital improvement plan and my number one goal is really just keeping it on track and continuing to make progress.”

On the topic of school safety and what resources should be allocated in the budget to address safety concerns, candidates unanimously agreed that it must be one of the School Board’s very top priorities. Some suggested investing more time and energy in restorative practices like community circles and harm circles. Others lauded City Council’s recent reinstatement of school resource officers through the end of the year. Specifically, Bailey advocated for encouraging transparency during the SRO selection process.

“I’ve spoken to several folks, including the police chief, about bringing a committee together to see the [performance] records of police officers you want to make SROs,” Bailey said. “I think we should have a choice of who’s in the schools. We must ensure safety in our schools.”

As students with disabilities were the only population that experienced an increase in high school dropout rate last year, Reing asked candidates to explain their plan for remediation in this area as well as inclusive education and equity for all students.

Rief highlighted the importance of making special education a strategic area of focus through the budget process, while Boyle suggested adding student and adult roles to all decision-making boards and committees specifically for this population.

“Having diverse voices providing comments, driving decisions and offering solutions will only benefit ACPS as a whole,” Boyle said. “ … Those things we focus on will be made important. Teachers and administrators will take this [seriously] if we all take this [seriously].”

Specific to District A, Reing asked candidates to identify the most critical issue for the ACPS elementary and middle school dual language program.

Bailey and Boyle acknowledged that they are not too informed of this topic and plan to conduct deeper research.

Greene called the district’s dual program “so important in a diverse and ever-changing world.” She expressed support for the program’s recent extension into the middle school, but also encouraged placing a higher priority on hiring strong leadership.

“I think that is critical to its success, and that is one area we can work on,” Greene said. “Dual language opens the doors to so many opportunities for the future and we need to continue to invest and provide solid resources for it.”

District C

Moderators Jenica Patterson and Rhett Christensen alternated asking questions to each of the three individual candidates in District C.

On how to successfully work with fellow leaders and community members who maintain differing political views, candidate and current School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she “[refuses] to politick on the backs of children.”

“It is essential for us when we’re making decisions that we [do so] based on the information and the data we have in front of us about our kids,” Alderton said. “The tough thing about that is that policy is not always popular, but I will always choose policy over popularity.”

Both Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi, former PTA president at Samuel Tucker Elementary School, and Chris Harris, an environmental health and safety engineer, emphasized getting to know fellow leaders and building relationships based on trust.

Regarding how to approach the safety concerns associated with aging school buildings, Harris said that his experience in engineering would be a boon to the board, as he has worked on both the front end of building schools and budgeting for such projects.

“When you deal with some general contractors to come in and do the work, if you don’t have the experience and knowledge to properly vet the individuals coming to do your building, you’re going to pay more than you should because you lack the knowledge,” Harris said. “Having two engineers, [Abdel and me], on the School Board would be a great benefit because we know what to look for; we know how to vet.”

Elnoubi called on his experience as a project manager for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority in this particular realm, while Alderton called for listening to experts and sticking with the current Capital Improvement Plan but pushing council when necessary in order to speed up modernization.

Another hot-button issue the District C candidates addressed was where student safety fits into the school and city budget. All three candidates agreed that this issue has become divisive, but differed in their answers. Harris explained his personal belief that safety can be achieved without armed police in schools and expressed support for unarmed security guards or a video security system.

“This is not an indictment on police,” Harris said. “ … I just think we can think outside the box and not have tunnel vision when it comes to school security.”

Alderton expressed support for a robust SRO program but emphasized that it is “not the only element” of school safety and should exist alongside social-emotional safety programs.

Elnoubi outlined specific steps the district can take immediately, such as more supervision during lunch, staggering lunchtimes and hiring security staff with “better training and higher expectations.” When it comes to SROs, Elnoubi said he understood both sides of the issue.

“We certainly don’t want to over-police our kids by having police presence in the school, but at the same time there are kids I’ve talked to who like the SROs and who feel safe because the SROs are there,” Elnoubi said. “The question becomes, ‘How do we together, as a community, have a collaborative dialogue and reimagine the SRO [program] that makes everyone feel safe?’”

On how to best support students with disabilities, candidates pointed to the currently existing multi-tiered systems of support model. The system is designed to address the needs of students and troubleshoot early in hopes of preventing long-term academic failure. They also called for more quantitative and qualitative assessments, continuing the commitment to in-person learning and allocating extra funds for tutoring remediation sessions, behavior specialists and licensed therapists.

District C candidates also generally agreed on providing competitive pay and benefits for staff, opportunities for upward mobility and instilling a sense of appreciation in educators as possible methods to both fill staff positions and retain them.

“There is nothing worse than an overtired teacher who feels unheard,” Alderton said. “That is a recipe for, one, having zero buy-in and, two, having a revolving door. We can do better than that.”

Community members have criticized ACPS’ ability to fully engage with many parts of District C, which Christensen pointed out in the final district-specific question. When asked what specific strategies candidates would propose to change this, candidates advocated for “getting creative” in order to reach families.

Harris suggested orchestrating bi-weekly meetings with parents to meet the School Board members; Alderton called out the level of “lopsided” communication that comes through to the board and thus advocated for sending the communications team to the field more frequently; and Elnoubi stressed the importance of reaching out through community liaisons.

“[We should find] that trusted person in the community, especially communities from similar ethnic backgrounds, and build that relationship,” Elnoubi said. “That way, when we need to communicate as a school division, we have those channels.

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