Each of the three candidates for Arlington School Board argued they were best equipped to foster greater community involvement, especially from those without school-age children, in a congenial debate last week at the Arlington Arts Center.
During the hour-long forum on Sept. 21, sponsored by the Ashton Heights Civic Association, the candidates proposed ways to share school facilities with tax payers and presented new initiatives to improve test scores and garner participation from residents.
They are seeking to replace Elaine Furlow, who is not standing for re-election after eight years on the board.
Nearly 85 percent of the county’s populace does not have children currently enrolled in Arlington public schools.
“We need to bring the community into schools as a partner,” said Cecelia Espenoza, a lawyer for the Justice Department and former PTA president for Claremont Immersion Program. “We have to be inclusive and look at utilizing the resources” of and for Arlington residents.
Bill Barker, who has been endorsed by the Arlington County Republican Committee, said if elected he would work to strengthen the school system’s outreach program with local organizations and establish vocational partnerships with area businesses. Barker questioned why Arlington does not have an official partnership with local community colleges.
“Everyone is paying taxes and has an investment in the schools,” said Barker, who spent 25 years as a civilian naval official and has a daughter at Washington and Lee High School. “The schools must be credible to the community and receive involvement from those who don’t have kids.”
Arlington residents must feel they possess ownership of the county’s schools and should view them more as community centers than as a building just for student use, said Ed Fendley, who won the backing of the Arlington County Democratic Committee. Civic association presidents should have keys to schools in their districts so recreational groups have better access to the facilities, said Fendley, former head of the Drew Model School Association and a State Department consultant.
THOUGH THE CANDIDATES were affable toward each other, they were pointedly critical of the school board’s appropriation of funds this past year. Fendley said he thought the board could have better used the talents of the community to keep down the construction costs on the new Washington and Lee High School building, which have ballooned to more than an estimated $100 million.
Barker excoriated the school system for not meeting its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Eleven Arlington schools failed to achieve AYP, though half missed their goals by only one or two benchmarks. Four elementary schools — Barcroft, Carlin Springs, Hoffman-Boston and Randolph — were unable to make AYP for the third straight year, and now must provide private tutors and offer students the opportunity to transfer.
Arlington spends an average of $16,000 a year per student, the largest amount in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of the highest rates in the nation, Barker said.
“For that type of money you would expect a lot more,” Barker said. “We spend one-third more than Fairfax County schools and they made AYP.”
Fendley and Espenoza voiced concern that the emphasis on federally mandated tests will shift school resources away from arts, music and science programs.
“We must ameliorate the consequences of tests so teachers can get back to teaching,” said Espenoza, who is running as an independent.
Barker tied school funding to the need for greater fiscal responsibility. If the school board can’t reign in superfluous spending, then it will be forced to choose between paying off its debt or cutting back on staff, Barker said. He added that his years running the Naval Supply Center prepared him to be fiscally disciplined, “accountable and focused.”
ANOTHER FOCUS of the debate was the school board's new strategic plan, which stresses “responsive education” tailored to each student’s talents and needs. Parents should find ways to work with the school to ensure that curriculums are engaging and resources are not just devoted to special education and gifted students, Espenoza said. But she cautioned that in a time of declining enrollment and eroding school budgets, it was imperative that the school board carefully weigh its priorities so as to not over-extending its funds.
Fendley reminded the audience that it was their responsibility as parents to see their children immersed in their studies.
“How much do kids want to go to school in the morning?” Fendley said. “It is in everyone’s interest that when they leave school they still want to learn.”
Fendley added that he will work to expand foreign language programs in schools, with the goal that each graduating student be proficient in one language other than English.
Those in attendance said they were pleased with the cordial nature of the debate and how the contenders focused on their own initiatives rather than attacking opponents. Many were impressed with the candidates’ range of knowledge.
“The candidates all did really well,” said Ashton Heights Civic Association member Bob James, who has yet to decide whom he will vote for. “They are not running just for the sake of running. They have a passion and have studied the issues.”
<ro>Future Candidate Forums
<lst>Saturday, Oct. 15. noon-7 p.m.
Clarendon Day Street Festival
Place: Along Wilson Blvd. from N. Garfield to N. Irving (near the Clarendon Metro Station)
Wednesday, Oct. 19. 7:30-9 p.m.
Place: Cherrydale Fire Station
Sponsored by the Cherrydale Civic Association
Thursday, Oct. 20. 7:30-9 p.m.
Place: NRECA Center, 4301 Wilson Blvd.
Sponsored by Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance
Tuesday, Oct. 25. 11:45-2 p.m.
Place: Alpine Restaurant, 4770 Lee Highway
Wednesday, Oct. 26. 7:30-9 p.m.
Place: Williamsburg Middle School