With a bond referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot that will add 16 classrooms at Langley High School and modular units at Cooper Middle, record high SAT scores at Langley last year, and parents and children seemingly happy at Colvin Run Elementary School, Dranesville School Board representative Jane Strauss appears to be an almost invincible incumbent. She’s unopposed for a third term on the Board, which pays its 12 members $12,000 annually.
Strauss is seeking her third term on an elected school board that she served previously as an at-large appointee in the early 1990s.
Her second full term, now almost concluded, was almost fully defined by budget issues countywide, and in Dranesville District, a lengthy and contentious struggle to build a new elementary school in Great Falls.
By comparison to those public struggles, her campaign this year is just a tire swing for Strauss, 56, the mother of four children and the wife of Bill Strauss, who writes and directs The Capitol Steps comedy troupe.
AT PUBLIC FORUMS, she uses her speaking time to talk about how well Fairfax County Public Schools are doing and then, warns voters that a 5-percent cap on the annual increase in real-estate taxes could be “dangerous to schools.”
Last week, she endorsed three of six at-large candidates for the School Board: Ilryong Moon, Janet Oleszek and Lynn Terhar. All are endorsed by the Fairfax Education Association, which represents teachers.
But her deeper concern is the proposed 5-percent cap on annual real-estate tax increases that her School Board colleague, Republican Mychele Brickner, has pledged in her run for chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
“The right thing to do is a tax restructuring,” Strauss told citizens at local candidate forums in McLean and Great Falls.
“People should not be taken in by sound-bite politics. It is easy to cut taxes. It is hard to restructure.
“It takes a lot of bipartisan cooperation by public officials and citizens who are patient and who don’t fall in the trap of being a NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard].
“In the end, if people work in good faith, you will wind up with a tax system that is more fair, yet still provides the basic revenue stream to pay for the services people want,” Strauss said.
“Virginia still labors under a system of taxation that was appropriate in an agrarian age. We are too reliant on real estate as the basic revenue stream.
“An urban county like Fairfax County provides the same services as a city. It should have the same taxing authority” as cities like Fairfax and Falls Church, she said.
“We understand the result is not a windfall of new money,” Strauss said. “It simply means a more balanced menu of taxes that would be more fair.”
Restructuring “has to be done by the General Assembly,” Strauss said. “The citizens have to elect people who have the courage to do the tax restructuring, and then be willing to ride it through.
In Fairfax County, the real-estate property tax is the largest source of revenue. More than half of that revenue — 53 percent — goes to public schools.
Ironically, property taxes on real estate have risen by the same amount — 53 percent — during Strauss’s current term on the School Board. That’s too high for many citizens, and Brickner among others proposes freezing such increases at 5 percent per year.
“YOU ARE HEARING in this campaign season a willingness to simply cut taxes, or tie the hands of local supervisors by capping real estate taxes, rather than taking the longer and more difficult road of tax restructuring,” Strauss said.
“Families look with horror at what Proposition 13 did to public schools in California. People who move back having lived there, or have family and friends who lived there, tell anecdotes” about the deterioration of quality that followed, "Strauss said.
By comparison, she has plenty of good things to say to her constituents in McLean, Great Falls and Herndon.
And she’s hearing good things too, she said.
“I am hearing very positive things about schools and the services offered to kids.
“I am not hearing from anyone who wants to go backward,” she said. “I hear a lot of support from parents who have children with disabilities.”
But there is room for improvement. “We have things, like the start-time at high school, that we need to work toward,” Strauss said.
“I AM DELIGHTED” about the additional space at Cooper and Langley” that will be provided if the school bond referendum is approved on Nov. 4.
“We are adding space at the middle- and high-school levels in order to accommodate the bulge of children coming up from elementary school.”
Additions at the two higher-level McLean schools “also solidify our promise that we were not moving anybody out of the Cooper-Langley Pyramid,” she said. “We will accommodate them within the pyramid.”
Nor is she getting complaints about Colvin Run Elementary school or its boundaries. “It was difficult, but we did it,” Strauss said.