|From the left: Del. Kaye Kory, Sen. Dick Saslaw, Gary Aiken, Jessica Swanson, Supervisor Penny Gross, Andres Jimenez, and Ricardy Anderson.|
The forum also featured the two candidates running for the Mason District seat on the school board – Jessica Swanson and Ricardy Anderson – Del. Kaye Kory and her challenger in the Democratic primary, Andres Jimenez; and state Sen. Dick Saslaw.
While Gross touted her lengthy experience on the Board of Supervisors, Aiken, who’s never run for public office before, said, “I’m a creative problem solver. I am someone who gets it done.”
“It’s about experience,” said Penny Gross, citing her “excellence in constituent services and excellence in results” in education, the economy, transportation, affordable housing, and environmental improvements.
Aiken’s vision for revitalizing Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners is to “attract investors and developers who actually want to do something here.”
But first, “we have to make it attractive so people will invest here,” Aiken said. That means having a “cleanup force” to tackle the trash and signs, enforcing the ordinances, and supporting community policing so “poor people and immigrants know they are safe here.”
The comprehensive plan adopted for Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners lays out a vision for the area with a 40-year horizon, and “it’s up to private investors to achieve that,” Gross said. “We’re not telling people they have to get rid of their tenants.”
Regarding the proposed mixed-use development in the Southeast Quadrant (at the Columbia Pike/Route 7 intersection), Gross said, “We will see that development within the next five years.”
Aiken called the county’s plan for an East County Office Building at that location “a colossal structure that is not necessary.” He said those services are already provided in other places; “I’m in favor of scrapping that plan entirely.”
Relocate Bailey's Upper?
Instead, Aiken suggested “consolidating human services” in the building that houses Bailey’s Upper Elementary School and moving that school to the Willston Multicultural Center. Aiken acknowledged he hasn’t visited Bailey’s but said “it’s on my list.”
Gross lauded Bailey’s Upper, the first urban school in Fairfax County, “as one of our big successes.”
The East County Center is not a priority now. It’s still on the books but a bond issue for the project is “somewhere in the future,” Gross said. “We still need to have human services not in leased space. That’s how a caring community takes care of its people.”
The Willston Center needs a lot of renovation, which the Board of Supervisors currently doesn’t have the funds for, Gross said. And before anything can be done, the school board needs to decide whether it should be used as a school.
Aiken also called for more transparency and said the public needs more information about meetings and how to provide input. “The community is left in the dark about what’s going on,” he said.
A common theme Aiken said he’s heard at community meetings is that “the supervisor doesn’t listen.” He called Bailey’s Crossroads “a hidden gem” that’s inside the beltway and should be seeing more redevelopment. “That fact that it’s not is evidence that we need a change.”
Gross said Bailey’s Crossroads needs the right kind of redevelopment and said she rejected two proposals for the vacant Toys R Us store – a bus warehouse and “a bazaar kind of thing.”
The area is stymied by nationwide changes in retail and the loss of government contractors at the Skyline Center, she said, but new innovative projects are happening, such as the new swim school in the Willston shopping center.
Gross expressed pride in what’s she accomplished in getting more sidewalks and trails built – along Little River Turnpike and Columbia Pike, for example – although “we still have a long way to go.”
Aiken, noting that “elected officials take a lot of slings and arrows,” thanked Gross for serving Mason District for 24 years, adding, “Mason District is what it is because of you.”
“It’s time for a change after 24 years,” Aiken said. “We can have better schools and be sensible about the budget.” Noting that many people who pay taxes don’t have children in the schools, he said, “To the extent we keep raising taxes, we’re causing people to leave and stopping people from moving here.”
While Aiken supports saving money by cutting pension benefits for county employees, Gross said that, although the board made some changes to rein in costs, it’s important to retain the defined benefit plan. “I’m proud to support our county employees,” she said.
Both Swanson and Anderson stressed their experience in education.
Swanson taught in D.C. public schools and, as an administrator in the D.C. system, works on ensuring its $1 billion budget prioritizes students who need the most resources. As an advocate in Mason District, she worked on increasing funds for Fairfax County Public Schools and changing the name of Stuart High School.
Anderson cited her 23-year career in education, as a teacher, principal at the elementary and middle school levels, and director of teaching and learning at D.C. Public Schools.
“I will bring the lens of a practitioner,” she said, noting that she has dealt with discipline issues, special education cases, improving teaching and learning and has ideas on how to address equity and access for all students and close the achievement gap.
Swanson vowed to strengthen schools, retain needs-based staffing, improve teacher compensation as a way to attract and retain great teachers, and welcome all students, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Swanson said the Willston Center should be torn down and replaced with a community school – with such programs as early childhood education and health services – to relieve overcrowding at Glen Forest Elementary School.
Anderson agreed that a community school with wraparound services is a great idea and “a viable solution to overcrowding.”
Swanson suggested the school board can do more to support innovative schools like Bailey’s Upper and urge the state to change the funding formula to direct more funds to Fairfax County, which has a growing population of students with special needs.
Anderson lauded the diversity in Mason District, noting that her kids “are learning to be global citizens,” just by being there. She called for teachers to have enough time and resources so they can focus on high-need students.
Anderson cited the professional learning community model – where educators work together to address the individual needs of students and get them the extra help they need – as the best approach in ensuring students succeed. If elected, she vowed to be present in the schools every week.
Both Anderson and Swanson acknowledged that the schools have an image problem and that more should be done to counter the false impressions from rating systems like Great Schools. They both said the school board should do a better job of publicizing the good things going on in Mason District schools such as the International Baccalaureate and foreign language programs.
House of Delegates
Kory, who’s represented the 38th District in the House of Delegates for the past 10 years, will face Jimenez in the Democratic primary June 11.
Jimenez hasn’t run for office before but told the audience he has plenty of experience in government, working for “some of the most progressive members of Congress,” as an aide on the House immigration subcommittee, working on housing issues for New York City, and, currently, with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
For Jimenez, a key issue for the General Assembly is getting money for transportation, including Metro and bike lanes to connect to transit. He said revitalization of areas like Bailey’s Crossroads should accommodate living wages for working families and environmentally sound buildings.
Kory acknowledged the lack of a Democratic majority in the House has made it difficult to get legislation passed. One bill she worked on with bipartisan support that did pass authorizes a study of maternal mortality and will look at why most women who die after giving birth are nonwhite and low-income.
Another positive thing that came out of the General Assembly this year, Kory said, is an extra $378 million for education beyond the state’s funding formula.
Kory noted she is one of the founders of the women’s healthcare caucus in the General Assembly, sponsored the bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and worked with the State Department of Education to ensure Justice High School got accredited.
Saslaw, who is seeking a sixth term representing the 35th District in the Virginia Senate, spoke about his support for transportation funding as a way to revitalize the Bailey’s Crossroads area.
Sawlaw touted the proposed $300 million bus rapid transit system that would run between Tysons and the Mark Center in Alexandria’s West End. Funding would come from the state, county, federal government, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
If the Democrats can pick up two more seats in the Senate, “we’ll be able to make it happen,” he said.
Saslaw also cited his bill to provide $154 million in capital improvements for Metro, but said the money will only be available if Metro can control its operating costs.
He said a state law enacted in 2017 that allows localities to create “opportunity zones” in certain areas will spur redevelopment. That measure would allow people who invest in those areas and keep a property for at least 10 years to forego capital gains taxes when they sell it.
The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing April 9 on a plan to allow tax breaks and other incentives for redevelopment projects in certain revitalization areas, including Bailey’s Crossroads and Annandale.
Saslaw’s opponents in the Democratic primary, Yasmine Taeb and Karen Torrent, weren’t able to attend the forum.