Chantilly's Kathy Smith knows she has an uphill battle for re-election. Despite her qualifications and experience as Sully District's School Board representative, she knows people may discount her simply because she's a Democrat in heavily Republican Sully.
And that's so wrong — especially in an election campaign for what's supposed to be a nonpartisan entity, says campaign worker Terry Gross of Highland Oaks, near Greenbriar. "It saddens me how political the School Board race can be," she said.
"It's so important for people to learn about the candidates individually, what they stand for, how they feel about the issues, what their qualifications are — and not look so much at an 'R' and a 'D,'" said Gross. "I hope people who traditionally vote one way or the other don't just automatically vote for the party, but look at the candidates and their experience." Otherwise, she said, "They're not doing a good service for themselves, their children or the schools."
A resident of Poplar Tree Estates, Smith, 48, is the only Democrat to ever win a race in the 12-year history of Sully District. A former elementary-school teacher and a mother of four, she's been involved with PTAs for more than a decade and replaced Gary Reese after he became 67th District delegate.
SMITH'S HUSBAND Steve is the inspector general for Farm Credit Administration. Son Brian, 19, is a Syracuse University sophomore; Kyle, 17, Chantilly High junior; Andrew, 14, Chantilly freshman; and Stephanie, 12, Rocky Run seventh-grader.
So far, said Smith, the campaign's going well. "I'm walking neighborhoods and going to football games and back-to-school nights," she said. "I tell people how I've reduced the School Board budget and worked toward all-day kindergarten, starting in our neediest schools."
She was instrumental in paring $18 million from the board's budget. When Gov. Warner said he wouldn't take money from K-12 education, Smith remembered the School Board had already set aside $18 million in case he did — and having that money enabled the board to reduce its budget by that amount.
On the board for 1 1/2 years, Smith believes her background and experience qualify her to continue, and there are things she still wants to accomplish. She wants the schools to have the right programs to meet the "No Child Left Behind" requirements, and she's been asked to look at what's happening with middle-school math. Plus, after going through 1 1/2 budget cycles, said Smith, "I have a better idea of where we're heading and what our priorities should be."
"I'm such a strong supporter of public education," she said. "I think it's one of the things that makes this such a great county. We educate everybody, and we're getting better at it, all the time. I've been involved in schools for a long time and have seen changes and transition. And because I still have children in the system, I have a good handle on the job and know what we need to do."
Smith believes the most important thing the board can give children is "a good teacher at the front of the classroom," so she wants Fairfax County's teacher salaries to be competitive. And as a former teacher, she knows that "no one textbook will make students learn, so we need to [offer] diversity in teaching materials."
SHE SAID reducing class size "in ways that will impact instruction" is also important. For example, she said, counting special-ed students as whole students, instead of half, as was done before this school year, makes sense. That way, teachers may be added where needed most.
"I want to make sure we're using our dollars wisely — that we continue to evaluate our programs [for their effect on student education] and review how we're doing things," said Smith. "For example, having children in all-day kindergarten enabled us not to have to add any more Project Excel schools — which would have been more expensive than all-day kindergarten."
She said serving on the School Board takes lots of time to do it right and, initially, there's lots to learn. And after the election, there'll be a minimum of five new people on the board, "so it's important to have some continuity. With five people leaving, experience really matters."
Said Smith: "As much as you look at it from the outside and think you know what you're getting yourself into, you have no clue until you're there. You watch, listen and learn what's happening; and the longer you're there, the more you can do, because you understand what's going on."
She enjoys the job and especially loves visiting schools and PTAs. And she's pleased "when somebody calls you up and doesn't know what to do, and you can lead them to where they can find help for their issues."
It's crucial to learn what's important to people, said Smith. "For example, the School Board only allows high-school students to bring cell phones to school," she said. "Now, some middle-school parents want their children to have them. They're thinking about their children being out of touch on the way home, and they don't want that, so we'll look into it."
In her campaign for re-election, all she wants is for people to judge her on her merit and accomplishments — and not simply by a political-party label. "I'm as fiscally conservative as the next person, and I want to keep our schools strong," she said. "I don't have my mind closed to anything. I'm open to the issues that come before me and I don't feel like I have to line up with anybody. I look at the big picture, listen to public comments, weigh the issues and make my decision."
BESIDES, SAID SMITH, education shouldn't be made political. "I don't think there's a Democratic or a Republican way of educating children," she said. "Instead, you have to have a diversity of services. I don't have a political agenda — I'm the one with the experience."
That experience includes serving on school-plan, principal-selection, accountability-advisory and SOL standard-setting committees. She's been on four PTAs — president of three and was vice-president of the County Council of PTAs.
"For me, this isn't a stepping stone to something else," said Smith. "Schools have been my passion, my whole life. This is where my expertise is and I want to put it to good use."
Franklin Farm's Chuck James, co-chair of the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee — which advises the School Board — calls her "a great advocate for all children. She speaks her mind and puts the needs of children ahead of a lot of the school politics that I've seen. She does what's right for kids. She's done a good job and, knowing Kathy's work, I want her to continue on the School Board."
Campaign worker Gross believes she's done "phenomenally well in a job where you cannot please everybody and there are such diverging opinions on everything. She's moderate and a voice of reason on the School Board, and I believe she's the best candidate for the job."
Likewise, Smith's campaign manager, Laura Floyd, "can't think of anyone more qualified" to serve on the board. "Her opponent's PTA experience can't compare to Kathy's," she said. "School Board is her full-time job, and she's extremely competent to represent Sully."