Even in the middle of summer, three months before voters head to the polls, the Nov. 5 election of the Loudoun County School Board is shaping up as one of the most impactful elections in the board’s history.
In addition to the well-known challenges that the nine-member, nonpartisan panel faces in a county that has seen rapid growth, the less-public aspects of the board—including its internal dynamics, leadership positions, tone and direction—are all up for grabs.
With six incumbents deciding to not seek a re-election, the next board is certain to consist of two-thirds new members, and potentially as many as eight of the nine seats. Some—including sitting board members—feel that the prospect of having a board with little experience is unnerving, given the many challenges in addressing the needs of the massive $1.2 billion school system that spans 92 elementary, middle and high schools across Loudoun. School board members are paid $20,000 annually, and many work full-time jobs.
Others embrace the idea of a fresh perspective on the major obstacles, especially as the concerns mount over the way the current board is facing them. While the candidates don’t all agree on how to fix the school district’s biggest challenges, they listed many similar top priorities for the next School Board to tackle: safety/school security, communication, equity and diversity within the school system, mental health, hiring practices and addressing overcrowding and classroom sizes related to enrollment growth.
Read the candidates’ full responses to questions on these topics here.
Safety and Security
Several candidates identified safety and school security as the hands-down top priority, including two of the tree candidates running for the Catoctin District seat held by Chris Croll, who is not seeking reelection. They are Hamilton’s Jenna Alexander and Zerell Johnson-Welch of Leesburg, who are in a three-way race with Lovettsville’s John Beatty for the seat.
“Many parents have expressed their concerns about the safety of their students while attending school,” Johnson-Welch said. “The board should focus on a comprehensive and proactive approach that includes the collaboration with law enforcement, parent engagement, outreach to our children, and equipping all staff and students with the soft skills necessary to identify troubled students and seek help.”
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students and staff,” Alexander said. “LCPS needs to expedite the construction of security vestibules and renovation of aging school buildings, re-evaluate bus transportation routes and continue to invest in mental health programs, reducing overcrowding and prioritizing small class sizes … It’s critical that the School Board stretch beyond its current communication style to connect with parents and staff, hear their concerns and partner with them in policy development.”
“School safety will always be a priority, and I expect that we will act quickly to further protect our schools and communities from avoidable incidents,” said Broadlands resident Andrew Hoyler, who is running against Ashburn’s Leslee King for the Broad Run District seat currently held by Joy Maloney, who will not seek a first re-election.
“The next board must focus on the needs of LCPS students, teachers, administrative staff and parents,” said King, who also listed “open and easy communication” with school safety, mental health counseling, hiring and class sizes as top issues.
Both of the candidates for the Leesburg District seat currently held by Tom Marshall, Beth Barts and Joseph Newcomer, place safety and security among their top campaign issues. Marshall is retiring after serving two terms on the board.
“School security and safety measures need to be revised, as all students and teachers deserve to learn and work in a safe environment,” Newcomer said. Barts is also advocating for “better communication as a school division.”
Protecting children from guns, in-person and online bullying, and adults with bad intentions are among the top issues for Ashburn’s Harris Mahedavi, who is challenging Eric Hornberger for the Ashburn District seat he’s held since 2011. Mahedavi is also highlighting communication, hiring, diversity and bias training as top campaign issues.
“Every successful organization lives and dies because of their culture,” he said, pledging to “uplift our children’s mental health through counselors, social workers and other support programs and make it a safe place.”
Equity and Diversity
Equity within the school system has been a major focus of the board in recent months, with the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Equity earlier in the year. In early June, the committee received an equity assessment conducted by a consulting firm that showed there is much work to be done.
The main motivator for current Vice Chair Brenda Sheridan, seeking re-election to the Sterling District from challenger and fellow Sterling resident Mike Neely, is equity within the school system.
“I look forward to making changes that directly impact the issues brought forward by the Equity Assessment,” she said. “While the issue of racism is not new to LCPS, we are finally addressing the issues that our students, parents and staff identified in the audit. It’s the most important work we have tackled in my time on the school board,” she added.
Stone Ridge resident Kenya Savage, one of three candidates vying for the at-large seat along with Ashburn’s Denise Corbo and Leesburg’s Julie Sisson, said that diversity and equity are vital to address in a rapidly growing school system. Some students feel the district does not share their values or understand their uniqueness.
“Diversity not just in race, but in students’ abilities,” she said.
Beth Huck currently holds the at-large seat and, after initially announcing plans to seek re-election, she withdrew her candidacy in early June, citing competing personal health, family and professional development goals.
Other issues Savage noted are providing broadband internet access to all students, examining the impact of smartphones, social media validation and mental health concerns, along with middle school bullying, and drugs, alcohol and vaping in high schools.
“LCPS struggles recruiting and retaining teachers especially teachers trained to address the specific needs of our most vulnerable students,” said Johnson-Welch, echoing other candidates’ call to focus on diversity in hiring.
Communication and Accountability
Many of the candidates focused on how the school system, led by the board, could improve communication and increase accountability.
“The rapid growth within our county and the high turnover of upper-level administration have caused disconnects throughout the school division,” Corbo said. “We are spending a lot of money on too many new initiatives that lack program data and are challenging for our teachers to manage. Often, these new initiatives are unnecessary, and are not supported by data.”
Sisson agreed. “LCPS currently has a big issue with accountability,” she said, noting that it’s not just with parents regarding school safety, staff behavior and upholding standards, but also with accountability of the administration to the School Board.
“New initiatives and policies should be proactively and clearly communicated—and then followed,” she added. “We are all rightly concerned with what we’re seeing in the news lately, and the platitudes are frankly insufficient.”
Purcellville resident Ian Serotkin, who is seeking election to represent the Blue Ridge District seat being vacated by Jill Turgeon, targeted communication as a system-wide issue. “There’s a real perception—justifiably—that the school board doesn’t communicate effectively with the community,” he said. “The school district has struggled greatly to release needed information in a timely fashion when incidents have occurred in our schools, from sexual assault in locker rooms to individuals carrying firearms into the school buildings—to the point where the school board has lost the trust of the community.” The new board should place a major focus on this “to get that trust back,” he added.
Fellow Blue Ridge District candidate Ram Venkatachalam, who lives in Ashburn, also said the school board needs to do more to help steer the ship.
“LCPS is a large bureaucracy that requires effective oversight of its day-to-day performance, communication with stakeholders, and long-term planning,” he said. “The next School Board needs to do this more effectively and be focused on core curricula, enrichment programs, and the safety and best interests of our students, teachers and schools.”
Neely, who is challenging Sheridan to represent the Sterling District, sees problems with accountability and transparency on the current board. “These two things go hand-in-hand to build stakeholder trust in LCPS leadership. Parents should know that their values are respected and their input is encouraged,” he said. Safety, security and mental health are also on Neely’s list of priorities, as well as school zone boundaries and overcrowding concerns.
“Generally, our school district needs to improve communication and outreach, so parents, teachers, and students have access to information and the opportunity to provide input,” said Potomac Falls resident Atoosa Reaser, who is running against Sterling’s Melanie Turner for the Algonkian District seat held by Debbie Rose. “With improved information flow, we can better address specific situations … Moreover, LCPS is operating as 92 schools within one division, rather than one division of 92 schools. We need more parity of experience from one school to the next.”
“Our schools need to be competitive,” Turner said. “I also believe that safety must be a matter of continued discussion in which we listen to concerns and constantly improve procedures. The new board should focus on transparency in the budget and work with the community to allocate funding for exciting mathematics, computer, and science courses.”
Core School Issues
Candidates also focused on traditional issues in a district with rapid growth and the day-to-day results of teachers and students. “I’d like to make sure the curriculum is actually preparing our children for our ever-changing, modern world,” Beatty said. “Fundamental subjects and soft skills tend to be the most important areas of study,” he added, saying that he would work to make sure “music and arts programs are not crowded out, and that our children graduate with a well-rounded education.” Loudoun County’s exponential growth “has burdened the educational system,” Johnson-Welch said in prioritizing overcrowding in classrooms.
Role of Experience
Many of the candidates criticized the current board’s handling of important issues in recent months, and the noise will grow louder as the election cycle continues.
Each of the three incumbents seeking re-election has served two terms on the School Board, since 2011, further highlighting the gap in experience and its role in the election. Often used to argue why voters should re-elect a particular candidate, experience could work against the incumbents in a race with two-thirds of existing members stepping aside, an array of fresh faces and challenges seemingly around every corner. Instead, those conditions are precisely why voters should consider experience a major factor, the three incumbents argue.
“My experience matters because I haven’t just spent my time as an elected official representing the Sterling District at meetings,” Sheridan asserted. She faces Neely in a quest for a third term. “I have spent my time in our schools in various leadership positions, volunteering and working beside teachers as a substitute. I get it.”
Hornberger, who served as School Board chairman from 2011-2015 and is facing a challenger from Mahedavi, lists the board’s success in expanding mental health support, reforming elementary school math and gifted education curriculum, achieving full-day kindergarten, reducing average class sizes, and safe-route-to-school and other safety projects as reasons to consider experience in the upcoming election, among others.
“I have been personally involved in each and worked collaboratively to make them happen,” he said, listing response to growth, hiring, equity, and pursuing new initiatives among the items he feels the new board should prioritize. “The next School Board needs to continue to utilize the Strategic Plan and its associated Strategic Actions to prioritize the school division’s work and benchmark success, while remaining sensitive to the changing needs and demands of the community it serves.”
With no opposition, the bigger question remaining for Jeff Morse (Dulles) is whether he will continue to serve as chairman under the new board. Each incoming board is given a chance to vote on a new chairman and vice chairman from within its ranks. Morse, who has spent years in public service, believes that “some board experience and continuity are essential.” In addition to better security and improved equity, he thinks the next board should address shortcomings in special education and English-language learner services, sustain the school system’s workforce in a tightening job market, and strengthen communications and transparency, including getting ahead of rumors and false information on social media following incidents at schools.
While there have been tense moments and close votes over the past four years along with some “cat herding,” Morse points out that the current School Board has found compromise to move forward countless initiatives that advance the needs of the school system, the constituents it serves, and most importantly, the needs of students. “From the dais, I saw nine very different perspectives with a strong sense of commitment to our mission: enabling all students to make meaningful contributions to the world,” he said.
Without party representation and with the focus on students, there is an expectation from parents and the community for School Board members to work together and get things done. “This is a nonpartisan seat that needs representatives who can work together as a collective group to make sure LCPS is providing a quality education for all students,” Barts said.
With candidates already publicly criticizing each other’s policies and privately preparing for a slugfest, what plays out over the next three months is part of what makes the 2019 Loudoun County School Board election so intriguing.