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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

School funding is main issue at supervisor candidates forum

NARFE members packed the room at the Mason Government Center to hear candidates running for the Board of Supervisors.

The top priorities of Mollie Loeffler, independent candidate to represent Mason District on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, include alleviating overcrowded schools, bringing more life to the area’s commercial centers, and giving neighborhoods more of a say in land use decisions.

Loeffler said Mason District needs “responsive leadership, a fresh approach, and new ideas.”

Penny Gross, the Democratic 19-year incumbent and the board’s current vice chair, stressed her experience and accomplishments, calling herself “a workhorse, not a show horse.”

The two candidates faced off at a forum Sept. 2 hosted by the Annandale chapter of National Active and Retired Federal Employees. The forum also included the candidates for the Braddock seat on the BoS – the Republican incumbent John Cook and Democratic challenger Janet Oleszek.  

Loeffler, a neighborhood activist who revived and led the Mason District Council and Parklawn Civic  Association, said, “it’s a passion of mine to give voice to the neighborhoods, which are a backbone of Mason District.”

Loeffler would spotlight the positive features in Mason District, like its great ethnic restaurants, to attract new people and businesses. She told the audience she supports a new school on the site of the Willston Center in Seven Corners with some services targeted to children. Other county services, however, should be housed in existing office buildings with high vacancy rates, she said, rather than in a new county office building.

Loeffler has been endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association and Tom Davis, a former Mason Supervisor and member of Congress.

Gross cited school funding as a top priority and said she would work with the school board and community to identify the school system’s funding needs but also called for more education funding from the state.

Among the accomplishments Gross listed during her tenure on the BoS: the renovation and expansion of all three libraries in Mason; the establishment of two new parks, Pine Ridge Park and the White Garden; the county’s first 20-year environmental vision; creation of the Department of Code Compliance; increased funding for schools; a new compensation plan for county employees; and the approval of plans “to guide sensible development” in Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, and Seven Corners.

Oleszek emphasized her experience on the Fairfax County School Board, where she served during 2004-07. She ran for supervisor against Cook in 2011, losing by just 371 votes.

Oleszek said her top priority is fully funding the schools, while her second priority is “mitigating any difficulties” from expanding Braddock Road, which she opposes. She vowed to “protect those in the dawn of life (children), those in the twilight of life (seniors), and those in the shadows of life (the sick and disabled).”

Cook talked about the need to find new revenue sources for the schools to offset declining commercial property tax revenues. One idea, he suggested, is to repurpose aging, empty office parks for light industry. As an example, using this space for manufacturing custom furniture would create jobs, he said, and would fit in with his proposal to expand career and technical education programs for students not heading to college.

For Cook, “working with neighborhoods is our first job.” As supervisor, he formed a “neighborhood college” to train community leaders to work on code enforcement, neighborhood cleanups, and environmental issues.

For the coming year, Cook said his top priority is addressing mental health challenges, noting his leadership in the board’s approval of the Diversion First initiative to address non-violent criminal offenders through mental health treatment rather than incarceration.

Cook also cited the need to improve training for police officers in dealing with the mentally ill, providing more services to homeless families living in cars or the woods, and improved transit.

When asked by a member of the audience how they would deal with the projected $100 million school budget shortfall projected for next year, Loeffler said she would work on increasing funding from the state and would work with the school board and county to find creative ways to save money in both budgets.

“We’ll have to tighten our belts,” Gross responded. “We have to realize we can’t fund everything.” She invited the public to a BoS meeting Sept. 11 for the first “lines of business” review to begin setting budget priorities.
Cook said he supports increasing the amount of money the county transfers to the schools, supports higher teacher pay, and said he would work on increasing state funding.

“Cutting more from our schools is not the answer,” said Oleszek. She noted that teacher compensation is falling behind that of other districts and that the school system is facing more unfunded state mandates while the school population keeps growing.

Oleszek was the only one who said outright that she supports a meals tax to raise more county revenue. The others said they don’t oppose a meals tax but would like to see what the public thinks. A commission appointed by the BoS last year to determine whether a meals tax should be on a public referendum failed to reach a consensus.

The last time a meals tax was on the ballot, in 1992, it failed by a large margin, but Oleszek said it would have a better chance if it’s presented to voters during a presidential election. Adjacent jurisdictions have meals taxes to no ill effect, she said. Cook said, “I’m not going to shut the door and say ‘no’ to a meals tax” but proposed an increase in the cigarette and alcohol tax as an alternative.


  1. Yay Penny!

  2. Yay Mollie!

  3. Penny is only a workhorse right before campaign season

  4. 19 work horse years would be equivalent to 57 human years. Time for Penny to head to the pasture.

  5. Doesn't Mollie support charter schools?