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Wilson Faces Griffith in School Board Race

Budget responsibilities, changes to school district operating keys for candidates.

<bt>Two-term Fairfax County Public School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock), vying for her third four-year stint as the region’s education representative, faces off against school system newcomer Liz Griffith on school policies and capabilities in this November’s election.

Citing a downturn in the region’s housing market and the need to keep budgets "manageable," Wilson is running on a platform of fiscal conservatism and continued focus on cooperative community programs. Griffith, a stay-at-home mother and former Alabama parochial school teacher, is advocating a stronger push to all-day kindergarten, retooled bus routes and later high school start times.

"I feel like, over the last eight years, that I’m doing a lot of good," said Wilson, an accountant from the Fairfax area of Fairfax County. "We have been working with many of the offices in our area to make the whole community a better place and I would like to see us continue on that path."

For Griffith, the wife of an Air Force colonel who settled in Fairfax County a year and a half ago after living intermittently in the area for the last 11 years, the race is about finding new solutions to existing problems in the school system.

"From moving around so much, I have developed so many different perspectives," said Griffith, who has watched her children attend Fairfax County Public Schools, as well as schools in Alabama and abroad. "I don’t think that we are doing things as well as we could and we need to do something about it."

FULL-DAY kindergarten for the district’s elementary school students has been a top priority for Griffith since watching one of her now adult daughters finish a year of half-day kindergarten and have to fight to get up to speed with full-day kindergarten students.

"It’s enormous the effect that it has on the development of students and they need to work extra hard to catch up," Griffith said. "I’ve seen it myself and we should never put children at that kind of disadvantage so early on."

But the institution of full-day kindergarten has been an ongoing priority for Fairfax County Public Schools, Wilson said, adding that she will continue to support its expansion given that the School Board has enough money budgeted. Wilson noted that since the full-day kindergarten was initiated three years ago, 40 elementary schools — about 30 percent of the system’s schools — remain without the classes.

"This is something that we laid out already, and it’s something that I plan on seeing through to its completion," she said. "But if there is no money, then the only way that we can [expand the program quickly] is by cutting another program … and we need to think about overall student achievement and what will be best for all the schools."

For Griffith, the issue of funding will be one that is short-term.

"Money can be an issue with full-day kindergarten, but long-term, it will help," she said. "When you think about all the extra time and money we spend on bringing students up to speed and with No Child Left Behind, it can definitely make a difference."

Griffith has also described herself as a strong supporter of increased attention to student functionality, including integrating later start times for high schools and reorganizing the county’s bus routes for increased efficiency.

WHILE MANY of the policy changes advocated by Griffith may make sense when viewed on the surface, Wilson said that they cannot all be integrated into the school system without an effect on the taxpayer.

"We are in a credit crunch right now. People are starting to lose their homes and we can’t be saddling those people with more bills," she said. "We need to focus on those things that will make our entire school system better. "This cannot always be on the back of the taxpayer."

"We need to get the most bang for our buck … and make sure that our programs are focused on high academic achievement for all of our students."

A focus on more cost-effective ways of improving students’ academic experiences and lives through community cooperation is one of the strategies that Wilson said she would like to continue. In 2003, she organized a meeting between area parents and police officers to talk about gang prevention and has worked with the Fairfax County Park Authority to improve areas around schools.

For Griffith, increased attention must be paid to the students and improving their learning especially given the effects of early start times, half-day kindergarten and the highly competitive academic environment in the area.

"We can’t tie one hand behind their back and ask them to achieve at that level," Griffith said. "We need to address our challenges before they hit us over the head."