At first glance, it seems the soon-to-be members of the Loudoun County School Board have their fair share of differences. Two of the four were endorsed by the Loudoun Democrats and the Loudoun Education Association. The other two were backed by the Loudoun Republicans.
But the incoming board members say they have plenty of shared priorities that they’re eager to start working on.
The four who will be sworn in as new members in January are Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who won his seat back from Bill Fox; Joy Maloney (Broad Run), who unseated first-term incumbent Kevin Kuesters; Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), who takes the seat vacated by Jennifer K. Bergel who did not seek a third term; and Beth Huck (At Large), who steps in following the retirement of three-term member Thomas Reed.
First Up: Full-Day Kindergarten
Even though Election Day has come and gone, those newly elected to the board say they’re upholding their most repeated campaign promise to take steps toward expanding full-day kindergarten. They may take those steps more slowly than their constituents want, however.
Loudoun County is one of three school divisions in Virginia that do not offer every kindergartner a full school day. In the last year, the Loudoun school district expanded the program and 1,536 kindergartners, or 34 percent, now attend for a full day.
Incoming members acknowledged that bringing that figure up to 100 percent is important, but it will not be cheap or happen overnight.
“Full-day kindergarten is a reasonable expectation for the residents of Loudoun County,” said Marshall, who returns to the board in January after serving from 2008 to 2011. “Now, can we do it right now? That’s another question.”
It’s estimated to cost $23.2 million to extend the service to 61 percent of the county’s kindergartners, or 3,045 students. Superintendent Eric Williams has not provided an estimated price tag for universal full-day kindergarten, and encouraged the board to take incremental steps to get there.
Last week, the superintendent presented his list of capital priorities for the next six years, and he included a request for $16.32 million to build kindergarten classroom additions.
Marshall said he supports gradually moving toward more full-day kindergarten, but he would not back any plan that surpasses the county government’s borrowing limit. That would jeopardize the county’s triple-A bond rating, which helps it purchase bonds at a low interest rate.
Plus, he added, making room for the program’s operating costs will likely mean something else in the budget will need to go.
“I support it, but would I go blindly into it? No, I would not,” he said. “Bottom line is, what would we cut in order to pay for this?”
Huck expressed similar sentiments. The board needs to move toward more full-day kindergarten because community members want it. But, she added, it will mean difficult decisions for school and county leaders.
“It could mean a tax increase or it might affect other programs,” she said. “It’s definitely something that we need … but we need to make sure we’re looking at the bigger picture as well.”
“We know it’s important. Everyone on [the incoming board] has agreed that it is important. What we have to do is sit down as a board and figure out how we’re going to get there.”
Maloney said throughout her campaign that a step-by-step plan to achieve universal full-day kindergarten is long overdue.
“My personal goal is to have a plan in place by the end of next year—that we’re going to follow,” she said Monday, noting that Fairfax and Prince William counties followed a years-long plan to bring the all-day program to all of their kindergartners. “There’s a sense of urgency to do the same.”
Other Priorities: Overcrowding, Teacher Pay, Safety
Ahead of universal full-day kindergarten, Huck said the immediate need is to find some solutions for overcrowding in the Dulles- and Brambleton-area schools. Some relief will come with the opening of Madison’s Trust Elementary in 2016, but there is still a need for several new schools as the population continues to grow, she said.
The bulk of the superintendent’s proposed Capital Improvement Program earmarks money for new schools and classroom trailers for that area. The board could bump the funding request for kindergarten classrooms to make room to meet the growing enrollment needs of schools on the southern end of the county.
Marshall said he wants to make sure the school system’s 10,000-plus employees do not take a backseat to full-day kindergarten’s expansion and other educational programs. He wants to see more of a focus on employees’ compensation, by providing regular pay raises and developing a supplementary retirement program for teachers. This will only help attract and retain the best educators, he added. “One of the best recruitment tools is to have good benefits and a good salary package.”
Safety is in the forefront of DeKenipp’s mind. He was surprised to see that replacing aging security equipment at 17 schools was not on the top of the board’s list of funding priorities, should the board get money from any county government budget surplus. He noted that artificial turf fields were listed as a higher priority, and that the board was told by staff members that the security panels cannot be repaired and are at risk of failing in an emergency situation.
“I’m kind of surprised by that,” he said. “With some of the recent events I think we need to have another conversation about safety and security especially given our geographical proximity to DC.”
Maloney, who will represent the Broad Run District, expects she and her colleagues will find enough common ground to make progress on constituents’ biggest concerns. She listed a longer school day for a greater number of kindergartners and shaping the Academies of Loudoun curriculum among them. But she said she’s looking forward to getting to know the incoming and incumbent board members to learn where their commonalities lie.
The nine men and women who will make up the School Board over the next four years will have a chance to do just that later this week when they spend three days together at the Virginia School Board Conference.
“That will be a good opportunity to get to know everyone better, and we’ll have a better idea of everyone’s priorities,” Maloney said.
DeKenipp noted that the differences among those on the board will also be an asset. “I think we have a good mix of skill sets overall, and I think we’ll find a lot we can agree on.”