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Baird makes early childhood education top priority during School Board campaign

Democratic-endorsed candidate learned value of public service at early age

Sally Baird got her first taste of public service as an infant, when she would wander through the board room at city hall while her father presided over council meetings in their northeast Ohio town.

At home, her father — who served as a city councilman, chief prosecutor and state appellate court judge — instilled within her the necessity of working tirelessly for the good of the greater community.

Over dinner every night Baird’s father stressed to his daughter that the key to getting things accomplished in life was to collaborate with others and to try to find common ground with your opponents.

"From the earliest stages of my life, I was taught that dedicating yourself to the community and holding public office is just what you do," said Baird, 42.

Baird is now attempting to follow in her father’s footsteps and devote her own life toward serving her community by running for Arlington School Board.

In May, Baird surprised many in the county by riding a wave of grassroots support to defeat Sharon Davis, a veteran of the school system and political insider, for the Democrats’ endorsement for School Board. Though Baird is a relative newcomer to the Arlington schools community — she has a son in first grade at Drew Model School and a 3-year-old boy — she won the Democratic endorsement by presenting herself as a fresh voice for the board who will have children in the system for the next 15 years.

"She comes at it as someone who wants to learn, and feels it is important to actually listen to what people have to say," said Karla Hagan, Baird’s campaign manager.

Baird will also make Virginia history if she defeats Independent Cecelia Espenoza on Nov. 7: She will become the first open lesbian elected to a School Board in the commonwealth.

Baird says her sexual orientation has not been an issue on the campaign trail; if she wins she will join two other prominent gay residents as elected offfice holders — County Board member Jay Fisette and state Del. Adam Ebbin.

Yet she believes that the discrimination she has experienced due to her sexuality has helped mold her into a more caring and effective leader.

"Because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, my style has always been to pull people together," said Baird, who has lived in the Nauck neighborhood of South Arlington for 13 years with her partner.

Since Baird and Espenoza differ on few, if any, of the major issues affecting Arlington schools, the two contenders have attempted to distinguish themselves by their levels of experience and personalities.

In debates Baird has sought to portray herself as an effective "manager" who will bring greater accountability to the School Board. Her job as a vice president of a nonprofit, tax publishing firm has taught her how to craft multi-million dollar budgets and bring a measure of fiscal responsibility to an organization, she said.

Taking to heart the lessons of her father, Baird said she always strives to be a consensus-builder and a leader who listens to both sides of an argument before coming to a decision.

If elected she promises to be an advocate for both parents and teachers. "Sally understands how to bring coherence to the many different voices at the table," Hagan said. "She can create an environment where [people] can do their best."

BAIRD CUT HER TEETH in the school system as a member of the Early Childhood Education Advisory Committee. The desire to provide Arlington children with better pre-school opportunities was what spurred Baird to run in the first place, and she has made it the centerpiece of her campaign.

She has repeatedly stated that early childhood education is "the best investment" the school system can make. Her goal is to ensure that all low-income, at-risk and minority students attend pre-school.

It is the easiest, and most cost-effective, way to reduce the school system’s minority achievement gap, she said. "If we get these kids in schools early, it lays a good foundation that stays with them for years," Baird said.

Her work on the advisory committee convinced Baird that the school system is not doing enough to engage parents in the education of their children. While affluent parents may have the resources and time to provide enrichment activities for their children, that is not usually the case for low-income families or recent immigrants to the country, she contends.

"We have to get parents involved and make sure they know what is happening in the classroom," said Baird, who would like to see teachers meet with parents on a more regular basis and for principals to make parental engagement a higher priority.

Baird believes her knowledge of, and emphasis on, early childhood matters will be an asset on the board, since none of the current members focus on that area as extensively as she does, she said.

"She brings a voice that would balance out the current School Board," Hagan added.

Baird’s detractors applaud her dedication to the issue, but argue that she doesn’t know enough about other school matters to be an effective leader.

"Early childhood education is very important, but it is only one aspect," said Jim Schroeder, Espenoza’s campaign manager.

"Sally is a fine person, but I don’t think the experience level is there," he added.

ANOTHER OF BAIRD’S top concerns is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining top teachers because of the high cost of housing in Arlington. Many teachers are moving to neighboring jurisdictions, like Loudoun and Prince William counties, where salaries are comparable but houses are significantly cheaper.

"This is undermining the strength of the schools," Baird said. "We need to make sure we keep experienced teachers here in Arlington."

It is imperative that teachers continue to live in the neighborhoods they serve, Baird believes. To ensure this continues to happen she has called for an increase in the Live Where You Work grants, and would like to see the county and school system find new ways to dedicate affordable housing specifically for Arlington teachers.

Baird believes that while maintaining quality neighborhood schools is important, parents also need to have greater choices in where they can send their children. She has called for greater sharing of successful programs between schools and would like parents to be able to enroll their children in the school that is the best fit for their learning style.

"Our goal must be to make sure individual kids are getting what they need to succeed in school and in life," she added.

Though she supports the $33 million school bond, Baird agrees with her opponent that the construction program needs better oversight. She also harbors grave concerns over the expected size of the 2008 bond.

"We have to continue to be able to provide the best instruction in the classroom, and not just be paying off our debt," Baird said.

Finally, Baird has made greater community involvement in the school system one of the hallmarks of her campaign. If elected she would strive to establish more partnerships between area businesses and their neighborhood schools, and would try to expand community volunteer programs.

"We have to work harder to involve those who don’t have kids in the school system," she added.