The capacity crunch at Arlington Public Schools and the need for establishing better coordination with county officials were two of the major topics addressed by the three candidates for School Board at a forum last month.
The candidates who are seeking the Democratic School Board endorsement — Barbara Kanninen, Nancy Van Doren and Greg Greeley — politely agreed on many topics, including the urgency of the school system’s overcrowding issues, but some differences did emerge during the two-hour forum at the Arlington Mill Community Center on Columbia Pike.
Kanninen, for instance, was outspoken in her belief that there’s too much emphasis on standardized testing in Arlington Public Schools. She said students shouldn’t be spending an entire week of instructional time preparing for Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests.
“I believe every child in Arlington deserves a bright future,” she said. “They are more than their test scores… we should de-emphasize test prep.”
Greeley agreed, to an extent, saying that he believes the tests are not “an accurate reflection” of many students’ skills and abilities.
“It’s pretty clear that the pendulum for standardized testing has swung too far,” he said.
Van Doren emphasized her volunteer work for students with special needs, including six years on APS’ Special Education Advisory Committee. She said the school system is doing a better job serving students with special needs, but more must be done. Greeley echoed that sentiment.
“If there’s any area where we as a school system must improve, it’s how we treat our students with special needs,” he said.
Asked about the rising per pupil cost at Arlington Public Schools — it will rise past $19,000 next school year, the highest of any school system in the region — Van Doren said most of APS’ costs go to teacher salaries.
“I just don’t see how we’re going to be able to cut that,” she said.
Kanninen said she was “uncomfortable” when it was announced that Arlington was the top-spending school system. She said she believes that it’s possible to cut “hidden” costs in the budget, and that savings can be found by reducing technology and test preparation spending. With the current budget, Kanninen argued, there’s no excuse for poor performance in any Arlington schools.
“We’re funding our school system at a level where we should be the best,” she said. Kanninen, Van Doren and Greeley all expressed concern about student performance issues that have come to light at Drew Model Elementary.
Greeley had some strong words about APS’ allegedly top-down approach to community communication. He said that school staff is told not to attend community forum and discouraged to communicate with the public outside of official channels.
“The notion that we don’t want staff to talk to the community is part of the broader philosophical issue that we need to address,” he said.
Greeley went on to say that the school system has not been forthright in revealing where it’s considering building a new elementary school in South Arlington.
“I can’t express with you how disappointing it is… there is no transparency about any of these conversations,” he said. “We keep talking about the Arlington Way and this is the exact opposite of the Arlington Way. We should be discussing this as a community.”
Kanninen largely agreed with Greeley’s assessment regarding the new school.
“We certainly know that South Arlington needs a new elementary school,” she said. “This process feels very ad hoc to me and that’s worrisome.”
On the topic of new schools and school renovations, Van Doren said that the school system should consider constructing taller buildings — “build up” — in order to preserve green space.
“We need to recognize that we’re now an urban community,” she said.
Kanninen suggested that capacity issues could be partially addressed by implementing more flexible scheduling, especially for high schools, or perhaps keeping schools open year-round.
“High school students don’t necessarily want a traditional school day,” she said. “Evening classes… will be a choice but could be a solution.”
Greeley said he would potentially support “more flexible scheduling in high school… but no in elementary schools.”
Kanninen, a Ph.D. economist, has made more science education — particularly in elementary school — an important part of her platform. She also supports investing in the arts.
Kanninen has two sons in Yorktown High School and has also worked as a children’s book author.
Van Doren, a school volunteer who has advocated on education issues like ADHD and special education, is a mother of four APS students. She touted both her volunteer work and her private sector experience.
“I have the operation experience to get done what needs to be done in the school system,” she said. “I have the understanding… to really understand the needs of students with disabilities, English language learners and gifted students.”
Greeley pointed out that he was the only candidate from South Arlington and, as the adoptive father of two boys, is the only parent of an English language learner. He also touted his experience as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and as a senior-level manager in the private sector.
“I expect to use my experience managing budgets, in managing staff… in a fiscally responsible way,” he said. “I know first hand that we can do better for our students.”
By contrast, Kanninen, who has canvased all 52 electoral precincts in Arlington, touted her data and analytic acumen, but not her managerial experience.
“I’m a grassroots Democrat,” she said. “I’m not a management type.”
The Democratic School Board endorsement caucus will be held May 15 and 17. The winner will emerge the odds-on favorite in the School Board general election in November.