With the election barely a month away, the candidates for board chairman are sharpening their rhetoric and turning it increasingly towards each other.
At two debates last week, Democrat Gerry Connolly and Republican Mychele Brickner focused on what they thought their opponent's greatest vulnerability was.
For Connolly, that was Brickner's conservative record during her eight-year tenure on the school board. For Brickner, it was Connolly's association with a Board of Supervisors that has overseen the spike in real estate tax bills.
At Thursday's debate sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, Brickner characterized Connolly as a tax-and-spend Democrat who would continue to raise taxes.
"My opponent has been treating taxpayers like an ATM machine for the past eight years," she said. On Sunday, at the Arab-American Institute's annual candidates' forum, she said: "Four years ago, before the election, my opponent talked about rumors of a tax hike being pure fiction." Since then, real estate taxes have increased 53 percent, she said.
Addressing the roomful of Arab-Americans, Connolly painted his opponent as a right-wing radical.
"She voted against diversity training on the School Board when she had the opportunity," he said. The training cost $250,000 out of a $1.6 billion budget, he added, criticizing her objection that it was too expensive.
"I think our teachers need and want diversity training so they can reach all the kids in our community," he said
THE WAR of words has not been lost on voters. Peggy Kugler, a resident of the Braddock District who attended the Chamber debate, said she thought Brickner was "a little testy." But Jose Ramos, who lives in Fair Lakes, said he thought Connolly was "more aggressive."
The candidates have sparred over transportation, taxes and spending.
On transportation, Brickner has criticized Connolly and the current board for not funding "a dime" of transportation projects.
"Is transportation a priority for my opponent or not?" she said. "Are we going to sit here and blame Richmond for the next four years?"
Brickner has proposed to sell $180 million worth of bonds to fund transportation improvements.
Connolly fired back with a list of transportation projects the board has funded through bond sales in the last few years totalling more than $200 million.
They include interchange upgrades, a bus shelter for the Fairfax Connector and projects associated with Rail to Dulles, which Connolly called his first transportation priority.
"The slander that we've done nothing is factually not true," he said.
ON TAXES AND SPENDING, Connolly slammed Brickner Thursday for voting against four of the eight School Board budgets she has been faced with. That, he said, explains why the Fairfax Education Association, the county's largest group of school employees, endorsed him.
He also criticized her plan of imposing a 5 percent cap on real estate taxes, saying it would have to be matched by county spending cuts.
"My opponent who talks about cuts has never identified a penny of spending to cut," he said. By contrast, he noted, as a supervisor, he's had to cut positions as well as $100 million from the county budget in the last few years. "I think we've done a really good job of reining in spending on the county side," he said.
Brickner explained voting against half the school budgets this way: "I voted against two School Board budgets because they were increasing class size unnecessarily. The other two, I voted against them because of teacher pay issues."
She has said she would appoint an inspector general to find ways to cut county spending as soon as she is elected, rather than identify possible cuts during the electoral season.
"It's not something you can look at in a vacuum and find it," she said. "Waste is marbled throughout the system."