Editor’s note: Former school board member Helen Morris and I co-authored this column which appeared in the October 7, 2021 edition of the Alexandria Times.
As early voting for the Virginia general election gets underway, there’s an important but often overlooked nonpartisan contest near the bottom of the ballot—Alexandria School Board. Even if you don’t have school-age children, your vote matters: School boards oversee the spending of YOUR tax dollars, we all benefit from a well-educated community, and strong schools are good for the local economy.
Because these ballot decisions are consequential, you owe it to your fellow Alexandrians to choose wisely. Alexandria’s school board has nine members, three elected from each of three districts. (Find your district here.) All nine seats are up for election, giving you the opportunity to vote for three candidates. Three incumbents are running for reelection, two in District A and one in C, and one former board member is running again in B. Therefore, at least five members will be gearing up for the steep learning curve of board service.
As long-time ACPS parents active in both school-based and city-wide issues over the years, we encourage you to consider some qualities that make effective school board leaders:
- Broad focus and vision. Prospective school board members should understand the diversity of families ACPS serves and should represent all families in the city—not just the district or neighborhood that they call home but also all grade levels, demographic groups, and ranges of abilities. For the first time in recent history, there are strong candidates of color running in each district (Willie Bailey and Jacinta Greene in A, PreeAnn Johnson in B, and Meagan Alderton, Abdel Elnoubi and Chris Harris in C), and there are candidates who understand communities that have been traditionally underrepresented on the board (Bailey and Greene—public housing, Deanna “D” Ohlandt in A—Cora Kelly Elementary, and Johnson—Polk Elementary). Look for candidates who speak with inclusive language and demonstrate an understanding of and passion for opportunity for all students. Can candidates cite the name of ACPS’ strategic plan? (Hint: It’s “Equity for All 2025”.)
- Budget familiarity. Within hours of being sworn in, the board will begin the budget process. Candidates need to know how the ACPS budget is funded and prioritized, how it mirrors ACPS’s goals and priorities, and how it relates to the larger city budget. Incumbents such as Michelle Rief and Greene in A, and Alderton in C, as well as former school board member Kelly Carmichael Booz in B and former Council member Bailey in A, will bring valuable prior experience to a board of majority newcomers.
- Belief in shared leadership. It is the duty of the school board to hire and oversee the superintendent. How candidates interpret that oversight and the board-superintendent relationship matters. Do they describe their prerogative to fire the superintendent or “make the superintendent accountable,” or do they offer their expertise and ideas to move leadership forward? Keep in mind that if a board moves to part with the superintendent, then that board, and thus the entire community, will spend the next three years searching for a new leader. A collaborative approach to improving leadership on behalf of children and teachers might be a better choice.
- Complementary skill sets. Other than being a caring parent or community member, what professional skills and public education ethos will they bring to complement the strengths of their board colleagues? Familiarity with best practices that support excellence among teachers, staff and administrators (which in turn lead to the best learning environment for students) is a plus. Ashley Simpson Baird in District B would contribute valuable expertise as a former teacher and education researcher and policy expert.
- Collegiality. Each member is just one part of the whole board and their collective success will depend on their individual interpersonal communication styles. Are they inclined toward consensus and compromise, or are they more likely to chart a “my way or the highway” course? Beware of candidates running on a single issue that’s attracting media attention, or candidates using partisan slogans to divide and distract voters, e.g., “Open the Schools,” or masks vs. no masks. School board service lasts three years; serious candidates will show interest beyond the issue du jour.
We encourage you to learn about your candidates and vote on or before Nov. 2. Information about the Alexandria PTA Council’s candidate forum on October 13, 2021 can be found here.