In a special Friday night meeting of the School Board, a new chairwoman and vice chairwoman were elected in the board's yearly organizational meeting. School Board Chairman Mark Wilkoff decided to step down from the position of chairman after receiving additional duties in his day job at the Navy Office of Litigation.
Vice Chairwoman Mollie Danforth was elected as chairwoman in an 8-1 vote and School Board member Sally Ann Baynard was elected as vice chairwoman in a 6-3 vote. After playing musical chairs — moving into positions at the center of the School Board dais — Danforth and Baynard identified five new goals for the coming year:
* Increasing the usefulness of the laptop initiative.
* Increasing preschool opportunities for parents.
* Developing a strategy to accommodate population growth and shifts in the city.
* Ensuring that secondary schools are drug-free.
* Providing outreach to the city's non-school community.
"What I want to do is focus on the board working as a group," said Danforth. "We need to be more effective and work as a team instead of working as individuals."
Danforth noted changing trends in student dropout rates, standardized tests and diversity of students as challenges that the School Board must face. She also said that the laptop initiative was one of the most important goals to pursue during her leadership tenure on the board.
"Everyone sees the huge potential with performance and instruction that the laptops provide," she said, adding that computers could contribute to reducing the use of paper in the schools. "We want to emphasize computer-to-computer communication between teachers and students."
Baynard also emphasized the role of laptops, saying their usefulness could be increased.
"We want to get more bang for our buck," she said, noting that the laptops could be used to access textbooks and communicate with family members. "Our first goal is always student achievement, and the laptops will play an increasing role in accomplishing that goal."
FRIDAY'S LEADERSHIP VOTE revealed lingering divisions among board members. Former Vice Chairwoman Gwendolyn Lewis voted against Danforth, and supported School Board member Charles Wilson for the vice chairmanship. Wilson and School Board member Kenneth Foran also voted for Wilson.
"We need to get away from the old country club mentality and do what's right for the students," said Lewis. "All of this was decided before the meeting began, and the School Board too often makes decisions based on friendships and commitments rather than achievements and diversity."
Lewis said that she would like to see more openness and diversity on the School Board, saying that "the best and the brightest" are not getting leadership positions. But for Baynard, the rivalry for the leadership position was a friendly competition.
"There's an old adage that you can know someone by your enemies — and Charles and I are friends," said Baynard. "I was honored by having him as my rival in this."
Danforth and Baynard are two of the most experienced members on the School Board. Danforth has lived in Alexandria since 1976, and has been on the School Board since 1994. She has served as chairwoman of the curriculum committee several times, and she is a member of the Virginia School Boards Association.
A former attorney, Danforth earned her jurist doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1975. She also holds a master's degree in education from Marymount University and a bachelor's degree from Randolph-Macon Woman's College. Currently, she devotes her energy to the School Board and civic organizations such serving on the board of the Alexandria Symphony. She and her husband have two children who attended Alexandria City Public Schools.
Baynard has lived in Alexandria since 1970, and she was first elected to the School Board in 1997. She and her husband have three children, all of whom attended Alexandria City Public Schools.
She was born in Washington D.C., and she received a bachelor of arts from George Washington University in 1970. She worked as a legislative aide for Clarence Long of Maryland, Earle Cabell of Texas and Gillis Long of Louisiana. After leaving Capitol Hill, she returned to George Washington University to earn a doctorate in political science in 1984. She is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, teaching graduate courses in foreign policy and decision making.