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Thursday, April 21, 2011

FCPS school board candidates speak to Democratic Committee

Four of the six people vying for at-large seats on the Fairfax County School Board spoke to the Mason District Democratic Committee April 19. The Fairfax County Democratic Committee will endorse three at-large candidates at its May 24 meeting.

The school board consists of three at-large members plus one member from each district. No Republicans have emerged, at least so far, to challenge the Mason District incumbent, Sandy Evans.

Ilryong Moon, the only incumbent at-large school board member seeking re-election, told the committee it’s important to have experienced people on the school board because six of the 12 current members of the board are not running. That includes Brad Center (Lee District), Stu Gibson (Hunter Mill), Liz Bradsher (Springfield), Tessie Wilson (Braddock), and at-large members Tina Hone and Jim Rainey.

Moon, an attorney in Annandale, spoke about the importance of education in his family, noting that he came to the United States from Korea in 1974 when he was 17, and he and all of his siblings went to college.

Another at-large candidate, Ted Velkoff, said he wants to ensure all Fairfax County students graduate with 21st century skills, such as the ability to solve problems, collaborate, and be innovative. Velkoff, a software architect, is a former PTSA president at Chantilly High School and served as PTA treasurer at three schools.

He is concerned about teachers facing “too much pressure to teach to the test.” He wants to ensure that “teachers and principals have all the tools to enable them to truly teach, not just teach kids to fill in a bubble on a test.” He’s also concerned that teachers haven’t had a pay raise in the past couple of years.

Velkoff stressed his Democratic credentials, noting that has been endorsed by former Del. Chuck Caputo, state Sen. Dave Marsden, and state Sen. Chap Peterson.

Greg Brandon, a retired Naval officer, vowed to make his service on the school board a full-time job. He spoke about the need to provide “the best education for our students” and the needs “to get a handle on class size” and offer more honors courses.

Brandon also said schools should devote less time to standardized tests, noting that principals expect teachers to spend 10 to 20 percent of their time coaching for the SOLs (Virginia Standards of Learning) exams. He is a former president of the Chesterbrook Elementary School PTA and a former PTA treasurer at Longfellow Middle School.

Maria Allen, a former South Lakes High School PTSA president, is a video producer who worked for ABC News in Moscow, Afghanistan, and China.

“There’s no question we have an excellent school system,” Allen said, but that doesn’t mean improvements aren’t needed. For example, she said, the Hispanic dropout rate is too high, and the high school start time should be later in the morning.

According to Allen, Fairfax County Public Schools avoids addressing problems because acknowledging a problem would detract from the school system’s image. She said current board members are often too willing to accept staff recommendations, and she vowed to not shy away from controversies.

A member of the Mason Democratic Committee brought up the tight budget situation facing the school board and asked the candidates what they would do if forced to cut the budget by 5 percent.

Brandon suggested savings could be realized by making better purchasing decisions. When his PTA was asked to provide 400 chairs for the school’s lecture hall, he was able to find chairs from an online vendor for $27 each, while chairs from an FCPS-approved vendor were over $50. He also proposed looking at the salaries of non-teaching staff.

Moon said 5 percent of the FCPS budget is about $10 million, and “nickel and diming will not get your there. You need to look at big-ticket items.” He said one option would be cutting back on transportation by extending the radius in which children walk to school.

Allen proposed cutting the central office staff. “We have hundreds of people and we have no idea what they do,” she said, adding that cutting 10 people would save $1 million.

Velkoff said raising class sizes and cutting salaries would save the most money, but both options aren’t palatable. Instead, he suggested changing the relationship between the school board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The school board should approve cuts to the school budget before it goes to the supervisors, he said.

The two other at-large school board candidates seeking Democratic endorsement, who were not at the meeting, are Ryan McElveen and Charisse Espy Glassman.

McElveen works at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and is a Mandarin Chinese tutor. His top three priorities are full-day kindergarten, higher compensation for teachers, and abolishing athletic fees.

Glassman is a lobbyist at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Her top three priorities are parental involvement in a non-punitive discipline reform process, class size, and closing the achievement gap.

So far two at-large school board candidates are seeking an endorsement from the Fairfax County Republican Committee. They are Lisa Fagan, an advocate for children with disabilities, and Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, an adjunct professor at Strayer University and the University of Phoenix and president of the board of Hispanics Against Child Abuse and Neglect.

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