Members of the Loudoun County School Board were the ones asking the questions—not answering them—in the board room Monday night.
They interviewed six candidates who have raised their hand to be appointed to the Catoctin District seat, which was vacated last month when Eric DeKenipp resigned with 14 months left in his term. The School Board will vote to appoint a board member at its Dec. 4 meeting. The appointed board member will serve the remainder of DeKenipp’s term, which ends Dec. 31, 2019.
The six candidates in the running are:
- Jenna Alexander, the director of the Hunt District PTA who has described herself as a passionate advocate of the county’s rural school communities;
- John Beatty, IT director and computer science teacher at The Heights School in Potomac, MD;
- Chris Croll, founder of Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students and a member of the school system’s Special Education Advisory Committee, the Gifted Advisory Committee, and the School Board-appointed Special Education Ad-hoc Committee, and a delegate on the Minority Student Achievement Advisory Council;
- Zerell Johnson-Welch, an attorney, former chairwoman of the Minority Student Achievement Advisory Council, and a charter member of Tuscarora High School’s parent-teacher-student organization;
- Attorney Bob Ohneiser, who represented the Broad Run District on the School Board from 2004-2011; and
- Amy Tribié, the president of Lucketts Elementary School’s PTA and former music teacher.
The board’s eight current members asked each of the candidates two questions, and candidates had two minutes to respond.
Candidates brought up the fate of the county’s smallest schools in answers to several of the questions. That’s because the board is again considering closing Hamilton and Lincoln elementary schools and reassigning those students to Kenneth Culbert Elementary near Hamilton. The board delayed voting on consolidating those schools as part of its Capital Improvement Program until Dec. 11, so that a Catoctin District representative could be involved in the decision.
Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) asked the candidates what information they would need before they voted on whether to close the small schools. Tribié said she saw firsthand how important these smaller schools are to the county’s rural communities when she taught at Hillsboro Elementary before its declining enrollment prompted community members to transform it into a charter school. She told Marshall she is a proponent of keeping the small schools open and she would ask for community and staff input and investigate out-of-the box ideas.
Alexander and Ohneiser said previous attendance boundary decisions are to blame for some of the schools in the west, especially Hamilton, being under enrolled. “We have prioritized the desires of people who don’t want to be reassigned schools,” Alexander said. “The difficult decision that was not made was to assign students from the Leesburg area to Hamilton.”
Croll, who visited Lincoln Elementary that morning, said when it comes to the under-enrolled schools, school leaders have a marketing issue, not a budget issue. She said there are families taking out second mortgages to afford private school for their children who need smaller class sizes. “I don’t think they know they could have that if they drove 20 minutes west,” she said. “These small schools serve a need and it is part of the diversity of what makes this county pretty special.”
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) asked the candidates to name one of the board’s decisions that they disagree with.
Ohneiser said his one criticism is that the board doesn’t put enough pressure on state lawmakers to adjust the composite index, a metric used to determine how much money is given to school divisions. “We lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year because the state doesn’t give us our sales taxes back.”
Johnson-Welch, Alexander and Croll told the board there is not one specific vote they disagree with, but communication about the rationale behind decisions would help the public better accept, or at least understand, their decisions. “Parents might just see a decision as cut, cut, cut because the context and rationale is not being communicated…That could be improved,” Croll said.
Marshall also asked the candidates which of the board’s nine committees they would want to be on if appointed to the board. Alexander and Ohneiser said they would love to sit on the Finance and Facilities Committee.
“I love digging into the details and playing with the numbers,” Alexander said, adding that she would especially like to look at the operating costs of some of the county’s oldest and smallest schools that are under threat of being closed. “I feel something is happening in those calculations for the buildings that are under enrolled, yet on those same campuses, we have trailers.”
Ohneiser, who chaired the Finance and Facilities Committee for seven years, said he would like to pick up where he left off by coming up with out-of-the-box solutions to find savings. One of the expenses he pointed to was artificial turf fields. “There is no way on earth you could ever justify a turf field on an already existing field with water wells supporting it,” he added.
Beatty chose the Instruction and Curriculum Committee, where he would harness his experience as an educator to give teachers the tools to teach students writing, math and logic. “And as a computer science teacher, I would be able to help.”
Tribié also chose the Instruction and Curriculum Committee, where she would like the opportunity to look at alternative ways to adopt and purchase curriculum. “I’d like to look at incentivizing teachers to create curriculum that fits our district as opposed to buying a one-size-fits-all box that comes in a kit.”
Croll said she’d like to sit on the Communications and Outreach Committee to help lead improvements to the school system’s website and using PeachJar to produce fliers in foreign languages, among other improvements.
Johnson-Welch said she’d like to sit on the Discipline Committee, where she could dig into why minority and special education students are disciplined at a much higher rate than the rest of the student population. She’d also like a seat on the Human Resources and Talent Development Committee, where she could give school leaders the tools to hire a more diverse workforce. “I’d also like to work on training our educators to interact with children who may act differently in a learning environment than typically developing children.”
Before board members asked their questions, 27 speakers spoke in support of several candidates. The speakers endorsed Alexander, Croll, Johnson-Welch, and Tribié.
Even though just six candidates took questions Monday, eight actually applied for the position. One applicant, Taylor Gurunlian, did not attend the meeting and a second, Mark Miller, was found to not be eligible. Miller was invited to speak before the board to explain. He said that he discovered that Virginia law prohibits officers of the state or officers of the county from being appointed to a school board, and he is considered an officer of the state as a member of the Board of the Library of Virginia and an officer of the county as chairman of the Loudoun County Library Board of Trustees and as a member of the County Fiscal Impact Committee.
“I stress appointed,” Miller said. “Were I to be elected to the school board, I would be free to continue my years of dedicated service to the county and state without even a perceived conflict.”
This is the first time in seven years the School Board has needed to appoint a member. Sheridan was appointed in 2011 to represent the Sterling District after the death of longtime School Board member J. Warren Geurin. Following Guerin’s wishes, the School Board voted unanimously to appoint her to the position, and she’s since been elected to two terms.