As an associate professor at Norfolk State, and Hampton and Old Dominion Universities, Nell Hurley would teach graduate students the basics of financial management. In many cases, it was very basic, including balancing a checkbook. As a captain in the Navy, Hurley was the commanding officer of the recruiting district in Philadelphia requiring her to visit 130 colleges and thousands of high schools and would see students who couldn’t read.
“It was pretty scary,” Hurley said.
When she was retiring, she and her husband, Bill, looked around for the best school system they could find and settled in Fairfax County. The couple had four daughters — two graduates of Fairfax County Public Schools who are attending the University of Virginia, a high-schooler at Woodson and the youngest attending Little Run Elementary School.
“While Fairfax County is good, it’s not the best,” Hurley said. “It can always be improved.”
For that reason, Hurley is seeking an at-large seat on the Fairfax County School Board.
“Experience, education and motherhood,” Hurley said are her qualifications. “I’m professional, prepared educationally and I’m a mommy. I’ve been on the GT [gifted and talented] advisory committee, but I’m also a special-education parent. I understand the spectrum. I’ve been an advocate for kids.”
HURLEY SAID the biggest obstacle facing the school system is the budget and how to ensure those who need the most resources and the most support receive it.
“Nell Hurley is the self-proclaimed literal numbers person,” said School Board member Christian Braunlich (Lee), who is running for a state Senate seat. “She is very good at slicing and dicing until she gets to the facts.”
She said the school system shouldn’t have classrooms with 35 students in them, but that the cure is not in capping average class sizes. Instead, the goal should be to reduce “supersized” classes individually.
Another problem is updating aging facilities, which should be on the basis of need, not a list. She cites Glasgow Middle School, as an example of a flawed capital improvements time table. Hurley does not live in the school’s attendance district.
“I can’t understand how the School Board is allowing the time frame for Glasgow to stand. It has the highest ESL [English for speakers of other languages], the highest population on free and reduced-price lunches, the highest population of minorities,” Hurley said. “Yet they’re going to wait until 2010, these are the most at-risk kids in the county. An independent consultant has said the building is not worth fixing and we’re not going to get the kids out of there until the end of the decade.”
HURLEY REALIZES THERE are other schools that have been waiting for repairs longer, but she said Glasgow has the greatest need. She points to the proposed south-county school that will be built through a public-private partnership faster than the school system could have done on its own as a future model. She said Woodson High School could be made into an administration center, freeing up Chapel Square administration center to be used as a school, and a new Woodson be built for the students through a similar partnership as south county.
As for teachers, Hurley said it shouldn’t all be about paychecks, but instead, the entire employment package. She said for example, the salary system could be separate from the rest of the compensation package, which could include bonuses for teachers. In addition, she said there needs to be other ways of rewarding the best teachers than by promoting them into administrative positions.
“We take our really good teachers and make them administrators,” Hurley said. “They’re great administrators, but they’re not teachers anymore. The only way to get a promotion is to go into administration. A teacher with 30 years and a master’s degree gets less than an assistant principal four years out of college.”
HER NAVAL BACKGROUND has made her a numbers person and her educational background has provided her with insight into public school policy, she said. Hurley thinks programs need to be looked at in terms of their value to students, not schools. Parents need to be encouraged to take a more active role in the education system. And that priorities should be set based on need.
“Nell is very bright, very knowledgeable,” said Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which did not endorse her. Allen said the decision was made to endorse three of Hurley’s competitors — Lynn Terhar, Janet Oleszek and Ilryong Moon, all of whom are Democratically endorsed — because their philosophies were “more compatible with the association.”
Besides her military career, Hurley has been a college associate professor; has served on several school-system advisory committees; was an officer for the Fairfax County Council of PTAs and a part of various athletic boards or booster groups.