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Monday, May 13, 2019

At-large school board candidates outline views at forum

From the left: Abrar Omeish, Karen Keys-Gamarra, Rachna Sizemore Heizer, and Ilryong Moon.
The four at-large school board candidates vying for the Democratic endorsement – Karen Keys-Gamarra, Rachna Sizemore Heizer, Ilryong Moon, and Abrar Omeish – faced off at a forum at Jackson Middle School May 11.

There are three at-large spots on the board, and the Fairfax County Democratic Committee will endorse the top three vote-getters at its May 21 endorsement meeting. Here are highlights from the candidates’ statements at the forum:

Rachna Sizemore Heizer

Rachna Sizemore Heizer described herself as a “longtime community advocate with a record of getting things done”
The scene outside the forum.
“While we have a great school system, it’s fraying at the edges,” Sizemore Heizer said. She vowed to overturn the “bucket system” where students in the special education or general education “buckets” are presumed to be less successful and given fewer opportunities.

Instead Sizemore Heizer vowed to fight for “high expectations and a holistic education for every child.” She spoke about going to bat for her son, who has autism, and was put in the back of the classroom because “he was seen for his deficits and not as a human being.”

Sizemore Heizer called for “every child to be meaningfully included” and “equally valued.”

Noting that school are becoming increasingly segregated, Sizemore Heizer said, “We need to strategically use resources to get parents to stop buying a house based on the school.”

To address equity, she would ensure each pyramid has a comparable number of AAP (Advanced Academic Programs) centers.

Sizemore Heizer said the biggest challenges FCPS is facing are growing inequities, achievement gaps, and discipline gaps. She called for more options for career and technical education.

She vowed to work with the state “to get rid of all punitive high-stakes testing” and instead look at postsecondary outcomes as a measurement of success. She also called for a collaborative, respectful environment for teachers, with a less burdensome workload and more autonomy.

Sizemore Heizer has experience as a corporate attorney and as a professor at Texas Tech University teaching online courses on human resources and cultural competency.

Karen Keys-Gamarra

Karen Keys-Gamarra was elected to the school board in 2017. As a professional advocate for children for the past 10 years, she collaborates with families, teachers, and counselors to develop education plans. “I will bring this experience and those voices to the board,” she told the audience.

“I want to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline and build the school-to-career pipeline,” she said. She also wants to focus on mental health, as too many students are dealing with stress and anxiety.

As a board member who worked to keep Title I funding for schools with high proportions of disadvantaged students, she said, “We need to maintain funding for and support our vulnerable kids.”

“Leadership begins with listening,” Keys-Gamarra said. She spent a lot of time talking to students at Justice High School to understand their experiences, both before and after the school name was changed.

She would address disparities in advanced academics to ensure the racial composition and diversity better reflects the school population.

“We have two Fairfax counties,” she said. In the Dranesville District, only 4 percent of children lack access to preschool, while in Lee, it’s nearly 40 percent. “We have to have universal preschool. If we give kids access, they will succeed.”

Ilryong Moon

“Experience matters,” said Ilryong Moon, an Annandale-based attorney, who has been on the school board for 20 years.

“FCPS is a complex school system,” he said. “I have had to balance the budget 20 times, worked with four superintendents, and made very tough decisions,” including changing school boundaries. “I listen to people first before coming to a judgment.”

In 2015, when the school board hearing room was packed with people objecting to a policy change on transgender students, he said, “I stood my ground. I believe in providing equal opportunities to all students.”

When Moon came to the United States, from Korea, at age 17, his parents didn’t speak English, didn’t have much education, and had to take menial jobs to the support the family.

He called for teachers to have more professional development in cultural competence and increased diversity among staff so the school workforce better reflects the student population.

Moon said parent liaisons need more resources so they can reach out to parents who don’t speak English and who don’t know how to engage with teachers and schools.

Moon believes it’s important for a school board member to visit classrooms, attend school events, and “share your values with students.”

All children, no matter where they live, “need to be given the same opportunity,” he said. Also, teachers need more support, and administrators should be held accountable for providing support to teachers.

When asked how to protect students from school shootings, Moon spoke about the need to focus on mental health and to tighten the law on gun purchases.

Moon vowed to work Congress to fully fund special education. FCPS spends $550 million on special ed. Congress is required to fund 40 percent of the cost of special ed, but only funds about 11 percent.

Abrar Omeish

“The enthusiasm of kids inspired me” to run for the school board, said Abrar Omeish, who brought a crowd of young supporters with yellow hats to the forum. “We all want to make sure we have the best future possible for these kids.”

She called for more mental health resources and social workers in the schools, a focus on restorative justice, and more support for teachers and staff.

“It’s not just about educating children, we’re raising children,” she said. “We have to make sure we listen to the community.” She also called for having leaders who are “reflective of our diverse population.”

Omeish said school leaders need to listen better to ensure the schools are “reflecting the needs of every community” and also need to ensure they reach all families, including those who don’t show up on back-to-school night.

When asked where to find additional money to augment the FCPS budget, Omeish called for expanding public/private partnerships. “There are multimillion-dollar industries here; we need to expand their relationships with the schools’ foundation.”

Omeish co-founded the GIVE tutoring nonprofit, which matches high school students with young children.

There are three Republican candidates seeking at-large seats on the school board: Cheryl Buford, Vinson X. Palathingal, and Priscilla Destafano.

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