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Divergent Styles Arise in School Board Debate

Two candidates try to distinguish themselves through experience, leadership qualities.

During the first hour of the School Board debate at H-B Woodlawn last week, Cecelia Espenoza and Sally Baird spent most of their allotted time agreeing with one another.

The minority achievement gap needs to be reduced; the construction program requires greater oversight; there should be an easier way for students to transfer between schools.

When asked toward the end of the debate what issues — if any — the two candidates differ, Baird eschewed focusing on a policy disagreement and opted to concentrate on their divergent personal styles.

Baird said she is “a collaborator” and “a manager” who “wants to reach out and hear what people are saying.”

“I work with people to create a common vision,” added Baird, who is endorsed by the Arlington Democratic Party. “I don’t come in and pound people over the head.”

In stark contrast, Espenoza sought to portray herself as an “independent fighter” who will “hold the school system accountable.”

“Our job is not to run the school system … but set the mission and vision,” countered Espenoza, who is running as an Independent.

AS THE SCHOOL BOARD race enters the home stretch, the two candidates have begun to differentiate themselves by highlighting their levels of experience and leadership traits rather than their stances on pressing school issues, analysts and residents said.

“I didn’t see any glaring differences on their positions,” Thomasina Sligh, who has a sixth-grader at H-B Woodlawn, said after last Wednesday’s debate. “To me, it’s about their approach and styles.”

Baird is using her experience as the vice president of a tax publishing firm — where she oversaw “multi-million dollar budgets and multi-year projects” — to demonstrate her ability to better manage the school system’s finances in a period of flattening revenue.

Her time as co-chair of the Early Childhood Education Advisory Committee and as vice president of the Drew Model School Association, taught her that the school system isn’t doing enough to engage parents in their children’s education, Baird said.

The daughter of migrant workers, Espenoza has had a distinguished career as a law professor, judge and attorney with the Justice Department, which have given her the skills necessary to make difficult, yet judicious, decisions on the School Board, she said.

Her time as PTA president of Claremont Elementary School showed her how the school system operates, Espenoza said.

It is also imperative that Arlington’s Hispanic residents have a stronger presence in the system, Espenoza said. Though 29 percent of Arlington students are Hispanic, there are currently no Hispanic School Board members or Hispanics in the superintendent’s senior staff.

“There’s a large segment that we say we value but has no voice at the table,” Espenoza added.

WHILE THEY AGREED on many issues, the two opponents did clash on several school policies.

Baird wants to ensure teachers can continue to live in Arlington despite escalating rents and housing prices. She has proposed expanding the Live Where You Work grants, and would like the School Board to look into ways to secure more affordable units for teachers.

“We can’t afford to lose them to neighboring jurisdictions,” she said. “We want teachers living in our neighborhoods, shopping in our grocery stores and raising their kids with our kids.”

Espenoza retorted that it is unwise for the school system to be providing additional housing subsidies, and that that money would be better spent on scholastic programs.

Baird stressed the need to overhaul the school transfer policy, which she said curtails the range of choices parents can make.

“What we need to do in Arlington is a wholesale revisiting of how we look at boundaries and where kids are going to school,” said Baird.

While Baird said she wants to maintain the strong character of neighborhood schools, she said parents need greater flexibility in where they can send their children.

“We need to get children into the programs that fit best,” Baird added.

Espenoza disagreed with Baird and said the whole transfer policy does not need to be revamped, just applied “more consistently.” She would like to see boundaries re-examined so neighborhoods are not divided between two adjacent schools.

But she echoed Baird’s sentiment that parents should be able to find the school that best fits their child. “If parents find a model that works for their child, we should allow the student” to attend the school,” Espenoza said.

Both candidates agreed that the school system needs to do a better job of sharing and replicating successful programs.

“We need to look at programs that are working best and put them in some schools that are not performing to standards we’d like,” Baird said.

Espenoza and Baird both said they would vote for this fall’s school bond package, but each called for greater oversight of future building projects.

“We have to ensure that building designs are complete and hold the system to accountability that we are paying for the best,” Espenoza said at the beginning of the debate.