With eyes on the Nov. 5 state senate and delegate races in the Virginia General Assembly and all county and constitutional officials races, the League of Women Voters – Fairfax Area presented its second in a series of fourteen Fairfax County 2019 Candidate Forums. On Monday, Sept. 23, the League introduced its second forum focused on the one seat for Chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and three seats for Fairfax County School Board at large member. Held at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, this forum, like all others by the League, was nonpartisan.
Vying for County Chairman were Joseph F. Galdo (R) and Jeff C. McKay (D). For Fairfax County School Board at large member were Abrar E. Omeish, Cheryle A. Buford, Karen A. Keys-Gamarra, Priscilla DeStefano, Rachna S. Heizer and Vinson X. Palathingal.
Styled as a forum rather than a debate with interaction among the candidates themselves or with the audience, but instead, as a moderated discussion, the League made time after the formal setting for an informal meet and greet session.
Award-winning author and journalist Michael Pope moderated the forum and presented questions submitted by the public as well as his own to the candidates. Pope provided each candidate equal and fair opportunity to express their views through timed opening/closing remarks and answers to questions.
Organizers divided the forum into two segments; the candidates for County Chairman went first, followed by candidates for Fairfax County School Board at large member. The League co-sponsored the forum along with twenty-two local organizations.
Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Candidate Forum
Moderator: Michael Pope
Q1- The elephant in the room – "Can you assure voters you, (McKay) paid full market value for your house and are you willing to release the appraisal?
Q2- Affordable housing – Fairfax County increased the amount of spending for affordable housing by $5M to $15M. Is this enough money, and what would you do to increase the availability of affordable housing?
Q3- Body cameras for police officers- There's a proposal on the table to spend about $30M for body cameras for 1200 officers for five years. Do you favor the proposal?
Q4- Describe in one word, your campaign and your goals for this office.
Candidate Joseph F. Galdo (R) opened his comments stating he chose to live in Fairfax County because the schools had an excellent reputation and the house he wanted to purchase was affordable; however, he was concerned about the future. "Just the last five years, real estate taxes increased twice the rate of inflation, and the county is becoming unaffordable for more residents even while our children are taking classes in trailers. … Traffic congestion is worse. … Our county has experienced rapid development and it’s getting worse. … Worst of all, my opponent has just signed a promise to codify radical extreme sanctuary policies that would make Fairfax County a haven for criminals."
Q1- The elephant in the room – “It's a matter of transparency. From the beginning, when the vote was taken on the application for the zoning change, the chairman asked if there were any conflicts of interest. You did not report anything.”
Q2- Affordable housing – “We are destroying affordable housing in Fairfax County because of the pace of development and the real estate speculation that is ongoing. We are unable to replace it. The first thing that we have to do is slow down development that is going on, particularly the very high-density developments... At the pace we are replacing affordable housing, we won't get to where we need to be in ten years.”
Q3- Body cameras for police officers – “The state law requires every byte of data (from the cameras) to be reviewed. That is the reason why we are hiring 23 personnel for the Commonwealth Attorney's Office to review these videos. Not everybody in Fairfax County needs to have, or desires to have, body cameras in their districts. There are a couple of districts, a couple of communities where police have a problem with trust. Those are the communities we should be deploying body cameras; and wait until a time when the state legislature, the General Assembly, decides to relax the requirement for reviewing every byte of data in the videos.”
Q4- One word – "Responsive. As I go through the county talking to voters, this is what I hear most often, that the county is not paying attention to what they need in their community."
Candidate Jeff C. McKay (D) stated he was the Democratic endorsed candidate for chairman of the board of supervisors and explained his experience. "I spent twelve years on the Board of Supervisors and before that twelve years in county government. I know how this county works. … This county is successful because we welcome people from all over the world to come to Fairfax County. ... We've done some amazing things in Fairfax County whether it's Diversion First and leading the country to treat mental health; whether it's triple-A bond rating. ... I think that what our voters want is they want a leader who's shown that he knows how to deliver; he knows how to work hard on the issues, understands them (and) understands how this county is governed.
Q1- The elephant in the room- "Absolutely, I've done that. I paid full market value for my house. This has been a joke from the beginning, perpetrated by a developer himself who hired by a right-wing law firm to make up a concocted story that has no merit. ... So I've said from the beginning, it is false.”
Q2- Affordable housing – "It doesn't always take the county to make affordable housing happen. We made it happen with our community-based nonprofits … we're putting out additional money so that County money can be used and stretched much further for our nonprofit housing providers… Every land-use case that has come forward in my district has affordable housing; it has met or exceeded the ordinance requirements."
Q3- Body Cameras for police officers – "I absolutely do. I wrote the body language to support body cameras. For me, this is an investment in justice and fairness for everyone in our community. We're blessed with a state-of-the-art, top-notch police department. And our men and women who are in uniform support body-worn cameras because they have the confidence and the training they have to interact with the public. Our community overwhelmingly supports body cameras to make sure that when they have interactions with police that they're treated fairly and, there's a third-party validation of that."
Q4- One word – "Experience; it matters in this campaign. This is a big, complicated county. You want somebody, especially with half of this board turning over, who knows how to do this job on day one."
Fairfax County School Board at Large Candidate Forum
Moderator: Michael Pope
Q1- Boundaries – How do you strike a balance between keeping neighborhood together vs. making sure there is diversity?
Q2- Teacher Salaries – Should teachers in Fairfax County get more money, and what can we do to pay for it?
Q3- Guns – Should there be more guns and training of teachers or find ways to prevent guns from coming into schools?
Candidate Abrar E. Omeish said she's running for the seat because Fairfax County is one of the most successful counties in the country; at the same time, meritocracy exists along with disparities and inequalities. "The American Dream is under threat," she said. Omeish talked about children with food insecurities. "The kids who can't hear the teachers' instructions over the grumbling of their tummies…I encourage you to join me. Who wants to fight for that leader in every child in Fairfax County?"
Q1- Boundaries – “I think this conversation starts with empathy and understanding because there are families across this county who have different interests, different... concerns
Q2- Teacher Salaries – "We need to pay teachers with the dignity the profession demands... We have to continue to pressure Richmond to fully fund our schools... and something I heard from a constituent... start with $5M investment into an endowment that will continue to fund our schools."
Q3- Guns – "Safe schools are critical to even begin to have the conversation of success and excellence...I am not a supporter of increasing guns in our schools...I am interested in thinking about safety holistically with students.
Candidate Cheryle A. Buford: "I am fighting for our children's future." Buford focused on her skill and professional experience: a former 10-year teacher; a master degree in Public Policy; worked at Department of Education on policies to address at-risk youth and as a consultant to nonprofit…helped turn good intentions into measurable outcomes. "I will never forget, I work for you... I will champion academic rigor. Did you know that 50 percent of the students that graduate from FCPS and attend Northern Virginia Community College have to enroll in remedial writing?" Buford added that Fairfax County needed to provide more technical education, expand ROTC program and provide multiple pathways to escape poverty.
Q1- Boundaries – "I find it very troubling the current school board was trying to ramrod a change of policy without getting community input... It's up to you voters to decide if you will give them another blank check for four years."
Q2- Teacher Salaries – "One thing I will compliment the board on is they did raise the teachers' salaries, so they are competitive with the surrounding jurisdictions...A couple of people mentioned we need to keep pressuring Richmond to increase our funding. And that is a nice pipe dream. Good luck."
Q3- Guns – "We need to have SROs in our elementary schools as well, and in schools like McLean and Centreville HS, where they have many, many children in trailers, maybe they need a second SRO as well because walking between the trailers and the buildings puts them at greater risk."
Candidate Karen A. Keys-Gamarra: "I have had the distinct pleasure of serving as your at large school board member since September 2017...When you develop a good educational plan for our children, you give them the keys to success."
Keys-Gamarra detailed that as an attorney she worked with at-risk children, custody visitation, and more, and she worked fighting domestic violence in the community. "I bring all that experience to the board... I’ve worked on exposing younger children to languages... I've put forth a budget amendment to provide support for our special education community...I listen to constituents.”
Q1- Boundaries – "As a current board member, we are in the process of trying to figure it out...there is a lot of misinformation out there." She said that they were in the process of getting a consultant. "There is nothing that has been outside of our regular process… The next step as we will see with the McLean situation is scoping, to go into the community.”
Q2- Teacher Salaries – “Absolutely we need a competitive wage...the board has focused on raising teachers' salaries for the last two budget cycles, in addition to reducing class sizes."
Q3- Guns – "Teachers have come to me and said they don't want to walk around packing...We need to focus on mental health (for our students)...we also need to provide support for our teachers so they can recognize when a child has experienced trauma...We will do this together because the safety of our children is our top priority."
Candidate Priscilla DeStefano: "I'm a proud first generation American, and I'm actually living the American Dream...I became pregnant with my firstborn son but was able to transfer to Mountain View alternative." She said she received her degree from George Mason and her youngest child, age three is in the special needs program. DeStefano explained that she wanted to say all of this because she wanted people to know her experiences were not unique. "I want to represent the people in this county that have not been represented; that do not have a voice on the school board.”
Q1- Boundaries – "So wrong. The new policy is totally different...The new boundaries will be based on racial and socioeconomic compositions. What that means is, my Hispanic son can go to a different school if that school is not diverse enough."
Q2- Teacher Salaries – “Teachers should be respected for what they do in our communities...I do believe they should be compensated appropriately”
Q3- Guns – "I agree we should have more SROs (in McLean and Centerville); one SRO is not enough...I think it is a shame we don't have SROs at our elementary schools."
Candidate Rachna S. Heizer said that as a former professor at George Mason University, she understood what children needed to be successful. "It's not teaching to the test...What I want to do is bring back more critical thinking, more creativity, more innovation, more entrepreneurship, and more collaboration." Heizer added that as a Berkeley educated lawyer she started her career as a corporate attorney and had the skills to manage a budget. Heizer said that her proudest role was as a disabilities adjunct judicial advocate and fighting for children who did not have a voice at the table. "I want to have a strength-focused education system.”
Q1- Boundaries – "This is not a policy that has been voted on right now...We are a beautiful, diverse community so we can have diversity in our schools and keep kids in their communities."
Q2- Teacher Salaries – Teachers are professionals, and they need to be compensated competitively and fairly...we need to look at our funding formula from the state. We receive significantly less money than other school systems do. Another great place would have been the meals tax, actually."
Q3- Guns – "No, we do not need more guns in our schools. That's the answer. Period. End of conversation."
Candidate Vinson X. Palathingal said there were three parts of his platform: academic rigor, fiscal prudence and parental rights. He also shared that he had worked for Metro Washington Council of Governments and Fannie Mae Freddie Mac and was currently running an IT company. “I’m always an enthusiast for education and youth. According to Palathingal, the schools have misplaced priorities in funding and were failing miserably at developing youth with strength and moral character. “They are wasting millions of dollars on school name changes when kids study in trailers...We need change."
Q1- Boundaries – We want to be sure we have a system where real people and their interests matter, not the politicians' interests...All the people now agree; we are diverse enough. So why are we doing this? It's just absurd."
Q2- Teacher Salaries – "Hire the best. Keep them. Pay them whatever salary."
Q3- Guns – "Every school having an SRO is the first thing to do...I support armed security in all the schools."
To view the complete video, go to the League of Women Voters – Fairfax area's post at www.facebook.com/lwvfairfax/?