COVID-era learning loss, building security, the persistent academic-achievement gap and the future of capital projects all were part of the Arlington School Board candidate forum held Sept. 6 and sponsored by the Arlington County Civic Federation.
“We need to get our schools back on track,” said James “Vell” Rives, who like his opponent Bethany Sutton has more than 20 years’ residency in the county and several students currently in its public schools.
That means keeping classrooms open “no matter what it takes,” Rives said during the forum.
Unlike the County Board debate that immediately preceded it and focused largely on the twin topics of housing and zoning, the School Board questions and answers were on a broader array of issues. Both candidates seemed in agreement that the current School Board and school-system leadership were at risk of losing further trust with the community.
Sutton, who garnered the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s endorsement and therefore stands as the odds-on favorite come Nov. 8, said many in the community believe that the School Board “simply rubber-stamps” proposals brought to it by the staff, although she added that oversight is “sufficient” at the present time – while musing aloud whether “sufficient” was the standard Arlington parents and students should expect.
Neither oversight of senior staff nor community engagement is “close to sufficient,” countered Rives, who criticized School Board members for not taking formal votes on issues ranging from the closure of schools in the wake of the pandemic to the removal of school-resource officers.
The 2022 School Board race comes as evidence mounts at the local, state and federal levels that school leaders may have made a catastrophic error in judgment in keeping classrooms closed as long as they did in the wake of COVID’s first arrival. Learning loss remains palpable in the recently released state Standards of Learning exams, or SOLs, taken by students last spring, even though some Northern Virginia school leaders have attempted to put a fig leaf over the shortcomings by suggesting they are moving back toward pre-pandemic levels.
At the forum, Rives hit the (now deferred) proposal to eliminate grading of student homework, while Sutton said the school system has to do more to solve the seemingly intransigent gaps in achievement between students of various socioeconomic groups.
While there has been a rotating band of School Board members in recent years, the five-member body has been exclusively under the control of Democrats since the departure in 2007 of Republican David Foster.
Rives said discussion and decision-making would benefit from having “just one person” – in this instance, him – “from outside their circle.” But getting into office is a heavy lift for anyone who doesn’t have the Democratic endorsement.
The seat opened up when Barbara Kanninen announced she would not seek a third four-year term. Kanninen becomes the fourth board member to depart in three years, following Tannia Talento (four years), Nancy Van Doren (six years) and Monique O’Grady (four years) out the door.
Kanninen in 2020 ran for the Democratic endorsement in a special election necessitated by the death of County Board member Erik Gutshall.
Though leading in total votes, Kanninen did not receive the requisite 50 percent and found herself leapfrogged in later rounds of “ranked-choice” voting by Takis Karantonis, who won the endorsement, the subsequent special election and then the 2021 general election.
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