Low-Turnout High-Stakes Special Election for School Board

Low-Turnout High-Stakes Special Election for School Board

Countywide at-large seat to be determined by Aug. 29 special election; early voting is underway.

Could there be a worse time to hold a special election? August is a time when people do anything they can to get out of the region, which transforms into a swampy sauna in late summer. Nevertheless, election officials are preparing for an Aug. 29 special election to fill the at-large seat vacated by School Board member Jeanette Hough in May. If Hough had waited just a few more days to resign, voters would have been able to vote in the general election this November. But the timing of Hough’s resignation will prompt a late summer special election, a phenomenon experts say helps Republicans.

“Oftentimes a lower turnout election is going to feature a wealthier and whiter electorate,” said Geoff Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But if the political energy of the moment is particularly high, which I would say it is right now, it could potentially go a different way.”

Fairfax County School Board members serve in non-partisan seats. But Democrats and Republicans endorse their preferred candidates, and Hough had been endorsed by Republicans. Traditionally, Democrats have a harder time with special elections because the electorate tends to be more conservative than the general population. So the timing is good for Republicans, although not necessarily perfect.

“The disparity would be even more pronounced early in August,” said Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington. "By late August, people tend to be done with their vacations. If you have students going off to college, for example, you are likely dealing with that by late August, if not mid-August.

No Democrat has ever won a summertime special election in Fairfax County, which means this special election is the Republicans to lose. Two candidates who have not been endorsed by either party will also be on the ballot.


Chris Grisafe, endorsed by Republicans

CHRIS GRISAFE, 37, is a native of Lake Havasu City, Ariz. He was raised in California, and he's lived in Northern Virginia for 12 years. He currently lives in the Penderbrook neighborhood of the Providence District. He does not have any children in the school system, but he has served on Superintendent’s Business Advisory Committee, the Bonds Committee and the Adult Education Advisory Committee. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Loyola Marymount University and a master’s degree in business administration from Virginia Tech. Professionally, he is a national security specialist. In 2011, he waged an unsuccessful campaign for the Providence District seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. He is the candidate endorsed by the Republican Party.

“I think we can be better served than we have been,” said Grisafe. “It’s important for us to understand how we are impacting student achievement and to prioritize investments for the classroom. I don’t think we can gain that insight unless we are doing independent program evaluations.”

On the issue of the budget, Grisafe would like to make government more accessible, increasing the amount of information that’s available to the public while making it easy to get and understand. He said that would go a long way to help members of the Board of Supervisors understand the management of resources at Fairfax County Public Schools. It could also help School Board members when they need to make a case for increasing funding.

“The biggest critique I’ve heard from the county supervisors is that there’s not transparency in the schools budget,” he said. “For example, if you go to the annual report it shows variances on the board documents. But if you really want to understand position numbers, you have to drill down five or six clicks into a different part of the website.”

On the issue of class size, Grisafe was dismissive of the idea that the average class size was a metric that means all that much. On the campaign trail, he recently met the parent of a 4th-grade student at Chesterbrook Elementary School whose student was in a class with 33 students.

“The county has a policy for elementary schools not to exceed 29 students,” he said. "And there are a number of schools that are exceeding that and basically violating the policy which isn’t being enforced.”

On the issue of trailers, he said he doesn’t know enough to have a position.

“I guess I would want to understand the impact trailers have on the quality of education,” he said. “I don’t think that trailers are ideal. I haven’t studied the trade offs here for trailers.”

On transgender bathrooms, he does not support the Obama-era policy of requiring schools to allow students to use the restrooms of the gender they identify with. Rather, he said, the potential conflicts should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“I think the way the schools are handling the situation now where it’s on a case-by-base basis with the schools is what it needs to be for right now until we answer some broader questions of what follow-on policies flow from that,” he said. “I personally would like to see more unisex bathrooms.”

On the issue of J.E.B. Stuart High School’s controversial name, he said he doesn’t have a position one way or the other on the name. But he does have a position on the way the school system handled the issue, which he described as a “quintessential example” of a process that should never be repeated because it’s been so divisive.

“If you’re going to make a moral case of J.E.B. Stuart, then we need to make that same moral case for the rest of the schools,” he said. “Do we now, because George Washington had slaves, remove any monuments to him? I don’t know. I would want to know how is this helping the community and bringing us together.”


Karen Keys-Gamarra, endorsed by Democrats

KAREN KEYS-GAMARRA, 57, is a native of St. Louis. She has lived in Fairfax County since 1990, first in Huntington and later in the Sully District. She is the parent of three boys who graduated from James Madison High School in Vienna. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and communications from Tulane and a law degree from Washington University School of Law. Professionally, she is an attorney who volunteers as a court-appointed special advocate and a guardian ad litem. She ran an unsuccessful campaign for School Board in 2015, and she’s currently a member of the Fairfax County Planning Commission. She is the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Party.

“I initially started advocating educational issues with my own children, and then it carried over into my work,” said Keys-Gamarra. “It just stuck out to me how critical educational issues are to the success of kids.”

On the issue of the budget, Keys-Gamarra said the relationship between the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the Fairfax County School Board needs improvement. She said her experience on the Planning Commission gives her an insight into the inner workings of Fairfax County, especially in the Sully District which she represents.

“I really don’t see the Board of Supervisors as an enemy, and I think that sometimes — at least to the public — it appears that may be the view,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a healthy approach, and so I think that with my background I may be able to bridge the gap and bring a little more conciliation to the table.”

On teacher salaries, Keys-Gamarra said she hears from teachers all the time about how difficult it is to live in Fairfax County earning the kind of money that comes with teaching in the public school system. She said Fairfax County needs salaries that are comparable to rival jurisdictions.

“I’m hesitating to give you a yes or a no because I don’t want the impression to be given that ... we have to walk in and blow up the budget because this has to happen,” she said. “It all has to be balanced against one another but that would certainly be a concern for me.”

On the issue of trailers, she’s particularly concerned about young children being educated in trailers that don’t have bathrooms. On the campaign trail, she’s been hearing from parents who are concerned that their children have to wait longs periods of time before they can go to a main building to use the facilities. Keys-Gamarra points out that Fairfax County has a shortage of land, which means that schools can’t always get the larger size trailers.

“It may be a reality of the resources that we have had and how we’ve been making decisions,” she said. “Some teachers and some students may actually like having that kind of privacy that may have a bathroom in there and air conditioning.”

On the issue of class size, Keys-Gamarra said the average class size for Fairfax County elementary school — 22.4 students — is not necessarily a problem. On the campaign trail she’s not hearing parents complain about a class size of 22 students. But she is hearing parents complain about class size of 28 or 29 students in a classroom. She said she would like to see the county do something about it, although she’s doesn’t have a specific proposal.

“I can’t throw out a number,” she said. “There are certainly concerns regarding class size, and I have those concerns as well.”

On transgender bathrooms, she would not commit to agreeing with the Obama-era policy of requiring schools to allow all students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Keys-Gamarra said she agrees with the current policy of handling issues as they arise on a case-by-case basis instead of having a countywide policy.

“I’m not stepping in that,” she said when asked about her position. “I really hate to think of children and families being used as a political football.”

On the issue of the controversial name of J.E.B. Stuart High School, she said she admires the students who are raising the issue. She agrees that the name should probably change, but she doesn’t want to use the school system’s limited resources to make it happen.

“I think the thing that probably sticks out to me is that he denounced his citizenship as a United States citizen,” she said. “I am on record as supporting the name change. I am not on record as saying that we need to take Fairfax County’s funds to pay for that.”


Sandra Allen, Independent

SANDRA ALLEN, 48, is a native of Bolivia. She’s lived in the United States more than 40 years, immigrating as a child. She came to Fairfax County about 35 years ago, and currently lives in Vienna. She has two boys who attend James Madison High School, a rising 10th grade student and a rising 11th grade student. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marymount University. She worked in budgeting and finance at the Department of Defense before leaving the workplace to become a stay-at-home mother.

“I’m concerned that there’s not a voice present for the minority students,” said Allen. “There’s not a single person in any sort of leadership roles within the school system, ... and I’ve seen that a lot of the decisions that are being made without the input of the moms — the minority moms.”

On the issue of the school budget, she said she would like to see better management of the finances. She acknowledges that she has not studied the budget in depth, but she said schools should focus on appropriating money to students rather than security. Budget documents show Fairfax County spends about $5 million a year on 55 school resource officers. Allen said that’s money that could be spent elsewhere.

“I think we should stop making the schools an extension of juvenile detention centers where there’s police presence during cafeteria time,” said Allen. “We can reappropriate that.”

On teacher pay, Allen describes the $71,000 average pay of Fairfax teachers is “doable.” She said she would like to speak to more teachers before offering a definitive opinion, but she adds that teachers could be rewarded with salary increases based on performance. She said she would like to look at the benefit packages to see if some young professionals might be able to trade some of their benefits for higher pay.

“A lot of the young teachers don’t need those excessive packages or excessive benefits,” she said. "And they probably would do much better having higher pay, so doing a cafeteria plan could be an option.”

On the issue of trailers, Allen said trailers have provided a good education for children across the county. But, she said, parents should be able to force school officials to find classroom assignments inside a brick-and-mortar building for their children.

“I don’t have any issues with trailers,” said Allen. “But if a parent does choose to and sees that that’s not to the benefit of her or his student,” schools should be required to accommodate that.

On the issue of class size, Allen said the average elementary school class size in Fairfax of 22.4 students is not a problem, although she adds that she’s willing to hear from teachers if they feel that number should be lower.

“I think that number is probably about right,” she said. “I support the teachers’ perspective on this, and if they feel students are not getting attention we may need to change that number.”

On the issue of transgender bathrooms, Allen disagrees with the directive from former President Barack Obama that students should be able to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Instead, she said, schools should engage in a capital campaign to build new restrooms across the county.

“We need to provide the privacy that is necessary for the child, and I think that schools should create that environment of privacy by providing a third option — a neutral bathroom,” said Allen, who said she understands how much money would be involved in making that happen. “Schools work with private institutions for funding. When there is a will to change something, there is a way to find a solution.”

On the issue of J.E.B. Stuart High School’s controversial name, Allen agrees with the students to are pressing to have the name changed. But when asked how she would finance the change, she said she would not support spending money on it.

“I support it. I didn’t say it would be something that would be doable,” she said. “We have to pick and choose what our priorities are.”


Michael Owens, Independent

MICHAEL OWENS, 43, is a native of Baltimore. She’s lived in Fairfax County more than 20 years, first in McLean and later in Falls Church. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Towson University. She also has a master’s degree in English from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in education from Marymount University. Professionally, she is a usability and accessibility expert working on web-based applications for the consulting firm known as Design for Context in Washington, D.C. She is a former Fairfax County teacher who currently has one daughter in the school system who is a rising fifth grader at Belvedere Elementary School. She is the president of the parent teacher association there.

“I’m concerned because we have limited resources now, and we are going to have even more limited resources in the future,” she said. "And we need to make really important decisions, and we need to do so prudently.”

On the issue of the budget, Owens said the school system is unlikely to get increased funding from the Board of Supervisors. So she would like to see a more efficient use of existing resources. For example, she said, the school system spends too much money on athletic programs like football that could be funded with outside money.

“I would like the athletic teams to actually raise money for the other programs within the school,” said Owens. “The athletic teams could support the after-school chess club. Let’s see the kids helping each other.”

On teacher pay, Owens said she would like to see higher salaries — 10 percent to 20 percent higher. She said she understands the financial difficulties facing teachers because she was a single mother whose only income was the paycheck she got from Fairfax County Public Schools. In fact, she said, it was that economic pressure that caused her to leave the teaching and become a consultant.

“I left teaching not because I didn’t enjoy the students or the parents or even the administrators. I left teaching because I couldn’t afford to teach and live here. And that’s pretty sad,” she said. "I think it’s really important that the people who are teaching your children and interacting with your children every day live in your community."

On the issue of trailers being used as classrooms, Owens said Fairfax County has too many students in portable classrooms. But she also said that there was little the School Board could realistically about it.

“I don’t think anybody likes trailers,” she said. “But that might not be something that we can do anything about, at least in the short term.”

On the issue of class size, she said all parents would like to see a smaller student-to-teacher ratio. When asked about it, she circled back around to the question about trailers to make a point about her priorities if elected.

“I’d rather see us have more trailers and smaller classes than fewer trailers but more kids in each class,” said Owens.

On the issue of transgender bathrooms, Owens is the only candidate in who supports former President Barack Obama’s directive ordering schools to allow students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with rather than the gender they were born with.

“The kid that feels comfortable going into the girls room to use the facilities, they need the right to do that,” said Owens. “The kid who’s going to the bathroom to cause trouble no matter what bathroom they’re going into, that’s a whole different issue.”

On the issue of J.E.B. Stuart High School name, she understands those who want to change the name. But she was quick to add that the cost would be half a million dollars, and she said it’s not appropriate for the school system to spend that kind of money when there are other budget priorities.

“This is not an emergency, and it’s not a moral imperative,” she said. “I understand if a student doesn’t want to wear his name across their chest. But I don’t want to pay to change it."