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School Board Candidates Tackle Issues

Two contenders discuss plans to reduce minority achievement gap, rein in construction spending and keep students out of gangs.

In the opening salvo of the School Board campaign, the two contenders called for a greater focus on reducing the minority achievement gap and for increased scrutiny of the school system’s construction program.

DURING A DEBATE last Tuesday in front of the Arlington County Civic Federation, Sally Baird, endorsed by the Democrats, and Cecelia Espenoza, and Independent, agreed that the persistent minority achievement gap was one of the greatest challenges facing the school system.

Espenoza chastised the school administrators for not spending more time studying why a school system that spends so much money on each student still has a gulf between the scores of white students and their black and Hispanic peers. She called for more sharing of resources between schools that are struggling with this problem and those who have made strides in recent years.

"We need to take the things that are working and make sure they don’t just stay in that school, but replicate them," said Espenoza, a senior associate general counsel for the Justice Department.

The other key to closing the gap is to better involve parents in the education of their children, Espenoza added.

Baird argued that the only way for Arlington to improve the scores of minority students is to ensure they all have access to pre-school, which she called "the sounded investment a school system can make."

Numerous studies have shown that students who are enrolled in early childhood programs have higher achievement rates and are less likely to be placed in remedial classes, Baird said.

"Kids who go to pre-school perform better," said Baird, who has served on the Early Childhood Advisory Committee for the past five years and has two young sons, ages 3 and 6. "When you spend the money early on, you save much more later."

Both candidates agreed that the School Board needs to take a closer look at the school building program and come up with a more fiscally responsible plan. Each expressed concerns that there was no funding to fix heating and air conditioning systems in several south Arlington elementary schools.

THE TWO CANDIDATES have much in common: both live in South Arlington, have children in the school system and are life-long Democrats.

While the two opponents articulated similar positions on many issues, they sought to convince the audience that the scope of their professional experience and activism in the community made each of them the more worthy candidate.

Espenoza said her work as a law professor, prosecutor and judge has given her the skill set necessary to weigh competing interests as a School Board member and make difficult, but necessary, decisions. Her lead effort in establishing the immersion program at Claremont Elementary School gave Espenoza a deep knowledge of the inner-workings of Arlington’s schools, she said.

"I’m an individual who takes initiative … and has the drive to get things done," said Espenoza, who won more than 20 percent of the vote in last year’s School Board election.

Baird highlighted her time as the vice president of the Drew Model School and service on the Early Childhood Advisory Committee. Her experience managing large budgets at a tax firm will help her bring a measure of fiscal discipline to the board, she added.

"I understand the necessity of staying focused on the long-term vision, while [being] practical about day to day priorities."

The two are seeking to replace School Board Chair Mary Hynes, who is retiring after 11 years of service.

School Board elections are officially nonpartisan, but the Democrats held an endorsement caucus, which Baird won. The Republicans have not endorsed a candidate this year, and Espenoza was barred from seeking the Democratic endorsement because of her work at the Justice Department.

The two sparred over the level of gang activity in Arlington. Baird said it was "a real problem" and could see "the kids in question walking down my street."

Espenoza rebuked that comment, saying that it is impossible to tell if someone is a gang member just by looking at them. Instead, she said that police have found most of the gang violence in Arlington is caused by people who live outside the county.

Espenoza said more police resource officers were needed in the schools to make students feel that the school building is a safe haven, while Baird said that gang intervention programs need to start at a younger age.

Baird said that if elected she would try to find new ways to ensure teachers could afford to live in Arlington.

"We can’t afford to lose teachers to outlying suburbs," she said. "We want the teachers living in our neighborhoods."