Alexandria: New Faces on School Board Face Old Problems

Alexandria: New Faces on School Board Face Old Problems

Newcomers brace for coming budget and redistricting battles.

“Redistricting is going on now, but redrawing those lines before we know about the new capacity the new school brings is going to be difficult.”

— Margaret Lorber

While incumbents held onto the City Council, the 2015 Alexandria election is bringing some new faces to the Alexandria School Board. In District B, three newcomers will fill the three empty seats left by incumbents Justin Keating, Marc Williams, and Kelly Booz. In District C, Ramee Gentry will replace Patricia Hennig. But while the election is over, their work is just getting started. When the four new School Board members take office in January, it will be in the middle of the school system’s redistricting and operating budget discussions.

Veronica Nolan, Cindy Anderson, and Margaret Lorber will represent District B. Some differences are already beginning to emerge among them. Nolan said she is very supportive of the work currently underway by the Alexandria City Public Schools’ (ACPS) redistricting committee.

“I appreciate and take seriously that the redistricting committee has such feedback,” said Nolan. “We’re working with hundreds of community members that want to be involved. That’s one of those things that makes Alexandria such an incredible and unique community. We need to come up with solutions that will effectively meet the needs of students and their families.”

Lorber, while also expressing her gratitude to the parents and the community’s input, is less optimistic about the current redistricting plans. For Lorber, the better choice would be to wait and redistrict after the planned new schools can be accounted for.

“Redistricting is going on now, but redrawing those lines before we know about the new capacity the new school brings is going to be difficult,” said Lorber. “We need to understand first where we’re going to renovate and rebuild. Right now, we’re just moving people from one crowded school to another.”

Anderson expressed similar concerns about the redistricting process, particularly that it might send the wrong message to the community.

“My concern is that the general public will think redistricting is a solution, and it’s not,” said Anderson. “We can reshuffle them all you want, but we don’t have enough seats. I don’t want us to lose the momentum for building onto the schools or building new schools. I don’t want that to hinder our finding new schools.”

In District C, Gentry agreed that redistricting will be the first big issue facing the new School Board members in the spring, but has higher hopes about its results.

“It’s a big priority for us,” said Gentry. “It will help with some of our capacity issues. We need to be dealing with out overcrowding problems.”

According to Lorber, the new board members are already being caught up on the details of issues like redistricting and the budget. The CIP budget was presented by Dr. Alvin Crawley on Nov. 12, but the main discussions and debates will be on the schools’ operating budget beginning in the spring.

“We have to hit the ground running on the budget process,” said Lorber. “Throughout the next two months, we’re meeting with orientation-type events so that we’re really up to speed.”

On the spring budget, Gentry says there needs to be better communication between the schools and City Council on school needs.

“We need to be having good, substantive discussions, and we want to make sure they feel like they have the information they need for this,” said Gentry. Part of this is accountability. Gentry says the schools need to be honest about areas where the school needs improvement or even have the courage to “course correct” around programs that don’t work.

In the budget discussions, Nolan says her priority will be on supporting and retaining top talent in ACPS. Assistance to the schools’ teachers and administration was cited as a major budget goal for each of the newly elected board members.

“I’ll be pushing for extra personnel in classrooms,” said Lorber. “Whenever possible, to keep diverse group of learners together, you need more paraprofessionals and professionals supporting the people who are teaching.”

On redistricting and the budget, parting School Board members Booz and Hennig left their successors with some advice from their experiences. Hennig advised the new board members to make sure they really read everything they’re given, then read it again to make sure they understand, and to write down any questions that come up. Hennig said this is especially important in the budget discussions.

“Read it, read it again and get your questions written down,” said Hennig. “If you have a question on a program, ask what effect it has had on academic achievement as an example. Remember that parents and community sometimes have their own agenda on items — do not let that affect your judgment.”

Booz advised new board members to make sure they keep the budget discussions focused on the board priorities and specific issues that help student achievement. Both departing members also firmly stood by the necessity of redistricting.

“No board wants to tackle redistricting,” said Booz. “There are reasons why Alexandria has not revisited school lines since 1999. There are also reasons why schools are bursting at the seams in the West End. It’s important for board members and the community to understand the problem facing Alexandria school assignment and the need for redistricting. So many students cannot attend their neighborhood school on day one due to overcrowding. As a result, many students are transferred to other schools. My measure has always been to vote on what’s best for students even if that vote might not be popular among some. Voting on what’s right versus what's popular should be a touchstone for decisions on redistricting.”

“Redistricting is necessary,” said Hennig, “not just for population distribution, but for equity among the schools. Again, listen, ask questions, make your own conclusions and judgments.”