Arlington, VA

Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Karen Darner

Leadership in public service makes a difference. I want to share a true story of the School Board appointments made by the Arlington County Board in 1976. (This was before we returned, in 1994, to electing School Board members.) And then I want to reflect on some challenges facing our leaders today.

In 1976, there were two School Board vacancies to be filled. I was the new president of the educators in the Arlington Education Association, and sent each candidate a questionnaire so a candidate endorsement might be possible.

There were many candidates in this race. I had heard many good things about one candidate, Mary Margaret Whipple. Another candidate was Tom DeScisciolo, father of a Washington-Lee senior. Mr. DeScisciolo worked for the National Labor Relations Board in DC. As Mr. DeScisciolo and I talked one day, I was impressed by his interest in many questions and how we, as educators, developed our own positions on issues. I was a novice on the workings of our collective bargaining agreement with the School Board, but knew it was the cornerstone to discussion and compromise among our members, and eventually with the School Board for our contract.

AEA’s political arm reviewed all candidates’ answers and reached an endorsement decision for the County Board to appoint Mrs. Whipple and Mr. DeScisciolo. When I arrived at the County Board meeting for the decision, I slipped into a seat next to Mr. DeScisciolo and his daughter. He then explained to me how he came to apply to become a School Board member.

Earlier, he had been helping his daughter research the process for becoming a School Board member for a report of one of her classes. He himself became interested in serving, and felt he had the motivation to become a valued member. And now it came to be: The County Board appointed him and Mrs. Whipple to the Arlington School Board.

I am aware of the extraordinary value of Mary Margaret Whipple’s tenure on the School Board, County Board, and eventually the Virginia State Senate on behalf of Arlington and Virginia residents. Her knowledge and integrity are incomparable, and we are very fortunate.

Tom DeScisciolo’s leadership is less well known, but he stood up for what was right. In January 1977, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the collective bargaining process practiced in Arlington by the County Board and by the School Board was unconstitutional, and was to end. Arlington’s superintendent at the time saw this as an opportunity to break the contract with the educators, and said so publicly.

This is where Tom DeScisciolo’s presence became most valuable. He reminded the Board and Superintendent about collective bargaining, and that all parties had negotiated our contract “in good faith.” I will never forget his passionate message–“‘good faith’ means it is your word.” The School Board voted to reaffirm its contract with its employees.

Sometime afterward, Tom DeScisiolo was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He had completed about 18 months of a 4-year term, yet his Board presence was a gift of “the right person at the right time.”

Today we still need leaders who can make wise decisions–benefitting the whole county–while negotiating the thicket of competing demands. (As a former state legislator, believe me I do understand how hard this is.) We need leaders who can look long-term and not get stuck on what works for just today, or on who yells or lobbies the loudest. I say all this not as a reflection on any particular elected official, but more to guide us all going forward. Leadership in public service makes a difference. And the right kind of leaders especially matters.

Karen Darner served her community as a speech therapist in the Arlington Public Schools for over 35 years and represented part of Arlington in the Virginia General Assembly for 14 years. She loves it here.

Editor’s note: A few Progressive Voice columns will be publishing outside of the new biweekly schedule, following our column changes earlier this fall.

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