The two candidates seeking the Democratic endorsement for School Board squared off for the first time last week, sharing their views on how to close the minority achievement gap, improve the county’s early childhood education offerings and instill greater fiscal responsibility in the system.
DURING THE debate at the Arlington County Democratic Committee meeting on April 5, Sharon Davis and Sally Baird presented Democratic voters with contrasting alternatives in the race to replace retiring School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes.
Davis brings a wealth of experience to the contest, having been active in the school system for more than two decades and previously running for the position in 1999. She is the consummate party insider, married to Del. Al Eisenberg, and has twice served as the chairman of the county branch.
"My credentials go beyond the schools," Davis said during her closing remarks. "I’ve always been active in the community and have lived here all my life … I’ve worked hard for Democratic values and what we believe in."
In contrast, Baird is a relative newcomer to the Arlington political scene who has young children just entering the school system.
Baird said she offers voters "a new perspective and new voice," who will "listen to parents and the community."
The Democratic caucus will be on Saturday, May 20, from 2-9 p.m. at the NRECA building in Ballston.
The Democratic and Republican parties are prohibited from nominating candidates for School Board elections, but both regularly hold endorsement caucuses.
Early childhood education took center stage in the debate between Davis, who helped found a daycare center at Clarendon Methodist Church years ago, and Baird, who currently serves as co-chair of the Early Childhood Education Advisory Committee.
Both candidates called for increased preschool opportunities for Arlington children.
"Early childhood education is the soundest investment a school system can make," said Baird, 41, who has a 5-year-old son at Drew Model School and a 3-year-old boy. "Studies show that kids who go to preschool do better, and it gets parents engaged early."
DAVIS STATED that for every dollar a school system spends on preschool, it saves the equivalent of $7 down the road. But preschools in the county need to be "linked" with the school system in order to provide proper enrichment.
"Unless the program is a quality program with developmental roots, it won’t do the kinds of things we want done," said Davis, 55, who has previously served as co-chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction and chaired the Partnership for Children, Youth and Families.
Baird and Davis concurred that providing all Arlington children with adequate early childhood education was a key to reducing the county’s minority achievement gap.
As a resident of South Arlington, Baird said she sees the detrimental effect of this gap in her neighborhood schools, adding that "it is part of the reason why I’m here."
She urged the school system to generate ways to involve parents, and said that new approaches would have to be tried in order to end the disparity.
"When things aren’t working, we need to turn around and go in another direction or look at other programs that are finding success," Baird said.
Davis said it was necessary to change the mindset of middle school students that "doing well isn’t very cool." She praised Wakefield’s Cohort program, which brings minority students together in a mutual support group, and suggested that its success be emulated in other schools.
To reduce the gap it is necessary for more adults to become involved in the daily lives of high school students, Davis said. If elected she will work to establish more partnerships between the schools and local businesses and organizations.
"Kids need to see what’s happening on the outside and [be] launched into the next phase of their lives," said Davis, whose two sons graduated from Washington-Lee. "We need to promote the connection between the outside world … and what they are doing today."
ANOTHER MAJOR piece of Baird’s platform is to create a program to retain a greater number of Arlington’s teachers. Many Arlington teachers are leaving the county to work in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, where salaries are commensurate but the cost of living is much lower.
"Teachers should be part of our community, living in our neighborhoods, shopping in our grocery stores and raising their children with our children," Baird said.
In a time of declining enrollment and increased construction costs, it is imperative that the School Board be committed to fiscal responsibility to ensure a well-managed system, both candidates said.
The winner of the Democratic caucus will face Independent Cecelia Espenoza, who won 20.55 percent of the vote in last year’s School Board election, in the November. The Arlington Republican Committee is expected to back Mike Fazio in the general election.