Q&A: In the Race for Arlington School Board

Q&A: In the Race for Arlington School Board

Audrey Clement, challenger

Audrey Clement taking a moment between distributing campaign brochures and attending public meetings.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for the School Board looking forward?

Clement: Lack of transparency. The renaming of Washington and Lee High School reared its ugly head on the lack of transparency issue. Barbara Kanninen rammed the name change through with no public notice. It wasn't on the agenda for the June 7 School Board meeting circulated the night before. (She pulls out the agenda.) They doctored the agenda to add the name change on the website the next morning. (She pulls out the revised agenda.) This issue was the elephant in the room, motivated to divert attention from the real problem, the intractable minority achievement gap.

It didn't used to be the biggest challenge. I used to focus on the budget. It is serious. We don't know how to economize so we can't decide how to deal with increasing enrollment. We're not getting our bang for the buck. Capital expenditures are two and a half times as much as in other jurisdictions. The Arlington Public School operating budget is $19,340 per year per student, $4,500 more than Fairfax. I recommend a modest increase in class size of one pupil. It could save millions of dollars.

What are your main goals?

Clement: I have an agenda: (1) keep W&L name the same, (2) reduce declining test scores, (3) close the minority achievement gap, (4) get more bang for the buck, (5) listen to the concerns of all taxpayers. I would test certain theories such as "are we teaching to the test?" Teachers have to do it or get fired. Look at different methods of teaching and our laboratory, H-B Woodlawn. They don't teach to the test and have a track record for success.

Looking back over the 14 years you’ve lived in Arlington, what changes have you seen in the schools?

Clement: A dramatic increase in enrollment. I was shocked recently when trailers appeared at Swanson Middle School, which is close to my house. It defaced a lovely baseball field.

We have a burgeoning population. I certainly believe the scenario that Arlington is increasingly attractive to people who don't enjoy long commutes. And immigration policy admits 1.1 million legal immigrants every year, and they have to go somewhere.

Another change is the increase in the minority achievement gap. In 2012 94 percent of White students passed their SOL test while 75 percent of Hispanic and Blacks passed their SOLs. Overall the minority achievement gap in 2017-18 between Whites and Hispanics is 24.8 percent Hispanic and 22.4 percent for Black. And it has been getting worse in the past several years since Barbara Kanninen has been on the School Board.

Talk about the tradeoff between experience on the Board versus fresh ideas with a turnover of School Board members.

Clement: I’m reluctant to endorse term limits. I think it depends on whether you favor the person with the tenure. I can think of a Democratic officeholder who has been there a long time but I like and support him because of what he has done.

What is your greatest worry?

Clement: Lack of transparency. Maximizing public participation is the only way democracy is better than other systems. Officials fudge numbers, insulate themselves. People are not interested in a full-fledged public debate. For instance, there was only one hearing on the cost of the new high school, the most expensive investment decision a school board will ever make. A lot of people in south Arlington believe the structure will be substandard. The site itself is not large enough to accommodate what is needed. We could repurpose buildings like Fairfax does but the Arlington School Board refuses to do it.

Barbara Kanninen, incumbent

Sitting in the quiet of Barbara Kanninen's living room — a rare moment, she says, because being on the School Board can be a full-time job.

What would you say is the major challenge for the School Board moving forward?

Kanninen: The big thing is the budget — what we spend our dollars on and what isn't primary to the ultimate goals. It's been hard budget going for a while, and the recent County Manager's press release projection for 2020 indicates how tight the budget is expected to be.

I've said I'm going to lobby for a tax increase. Another way to do It is to bring in new business. We need to keep class sizes small for teacher morale and get teachers their pay raises, which we've been able to do since I’ve been on the School Board. We've been stronger every year but needs are growing faster than resources.

What are your main goals?

Kanninen: I think my main goal is to keep schools strong during growth. So much is good now. We've got to figure out how to do this with fewer dollars. We have five new schools/programs slated for next year with two new buildings — Patrick Henry into Fleet, Montessori out of Drew, a new middle school at the former HB Woodlawn. It takes a lot of staff time to transition to different schools — teachers and students and community, too, in a lot of ways. There is a lot going on. I learned in a civic association meeting recently that places like Ballston have other infrastructure needs related to the school changes. It is complicated for communities in a larger sense. This is stressful.

Looking back at the 30 years you have lived in Arlington, what changes have you seen in the schools?

Kanninen: Arlington is always changing, growing and evolving. When my husband and I moved here in 1995 no kids walked to the Metro. Young couples wanted to live here but moved to Fairfax when they had children because the school system was better there. Things are different now. In 2008 the economy crashed. Arlington recovered and got the support we needed while other area schools fell behind. Teachers are not as well paid in Fairfax and now they want to teach here. A lot of them do it because they really care. They know their stuff but it can be stressful and difficult. One of them recently commented to me that sometimes she felt like Lucy in that famous TV episode who was wrapping candies on an ever faster moving conveyor belt.

There has been growth, especially in the last 10 years. Little houses were knocked down and McMansions built with six bedrooms. We have grown from 17,000 students 10 years ago to 27,000 students today. Nowadays parents talk about more diverse schools. We are currently a majority/minority school population with 45 percent White and 30 percent Hispanic with the largest growing segment being the 5 percent multiple.

Talk about the tradeoff between experience on the Board versus fresh ideas with a turnover of school board members.

Kanninen: I have thought about this and would like to have one more School Board term. For this position it is important to have a connection to the schools. I decided to get involved when my kids were in high school and I was at a transition point. I saw what was happening in the schools. I felt I could contribute. I felt like we were bogged down in multiple-choice tests and wanted to bring the personal approach back to schools. Teach the whole child. I know how to get things done. I have a sense of where we've been.

What is your greatest worry?

Kanninen: In some sense I'm optimistic. If I had to name a worry, it would be our budget situation and how hard it will be to prevent our class sizes from increasing this year or in the next few years. Our relatively smaller class sizes are fundamental to student success, but if our County revenues do not improve over the next few years, we might have to increase the class size to make budget.