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Political signs on N. Kirkwood Road in Virginia Square (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

On the eve of Election Day, some of Arlington’s candidates are hopeful that this election cycle will bring a refresh to local politics, even while history suggests otherwise.

This year, four candidates are vying for one seat on the County Board — including three independents — and two candidates are competing for a seat on the School Board.

On the County Board side, Democrat incumbent Takis Karantonis is competing to keep his seat against Mike Cantwell, Audrey Clement and Adam Theo, while for the School Board, Mary Kadera and Major Mike Webb are running for the seat of outgoing member Monique O’Grady.

Independent candidates for the County Board in particular say the loaded independent slate could be a good thing for local discourse. Karantonis was not available to respond to a request for comment.

“The independent candidates brought new ideas and fresh perspectives this year’s election,” Cantwell said. “Arlington voters want change. They know instinctively that one party rule is bad for democracy and bad for Arlington. They want to vote for someone who is free from partisan ties and conflicts of interest.”

Adam Theo also praised the ratio of four candidates to one County Board seat.

“I hope to see every race in the future be this competitive and hopefully even more diverse,” he said. “I’m well aware that despite the competitiveness, unfortunately all four candidates are middle class white people. Although there are some good policy differences among us… we could have even more differences in policy solutions with greater gender, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity in our candidates.”

But perennial candidate Audrey Clement was more pessimistic.

“While I am impressed with the professionalism of Arlington’s election operations, I am profoundly disappointed that the vast majority of voters are fixated on one thing — the blue ballot,” Clement said. “That voters will not consider an alternative to the current Democratic Party machine guarantees corrupt government and ever escalating taxes for the foreseeable future.”

Independent and Republican candidates typically are resoundingly beaten out in Arlington elections, which favors establishment Democrats. Last year, 80.7% of voters voted for Joe Biden and 71.6% voted for incumbent Democrat Libby Garvey. Karantonis himself won his 2020 special election in a landslide, and likewise won the Democratic primary in June with a two-thirds majority.

Despite Arlington’s deep blue streak, Clement praised “the robust turnout for the six virtual candidate debates” she attended.

Clement also responded to the recent controversy over misrepresenting her age in a Washington Post candidate questionnaire, comparing age discrimination to racial discrimination 50 years ago.

“I maintain that all those over age 40 are in a federally designated ‘protected class’ that bars discrimination against them on the basis of age,” she said. “That means that they cannot be compelled to divulge their age except for an overriding government purpose.”

Overall, the independents say they’re happy with the campaign they led.

“I always spoke the truth and treated everyone with respect,” Cantwell said. “Because I am a true independent, I listened to all voters, not just the voters on Team Blue or Team Red.”

Theo says he didn’t set hard exceptions for himself this year, since he was focused on warming up to debates and introducing himself to voters. He says this year prepared him for future races, when he hopes to repeat the 2014 upset that landed John Vihstadt a spot on the County Board.

“I’ve now set up everything I’ll need for a future run in 2023 or 2022,” he said. “I go into a future race better positioned and prepared than any other independent candidate since John Vihstadt in 2014, I believe.”

Meanwhile, education is an increasingly hot-button political topic in Arlington and across Virginia. Division has seeped deeper into local Arlington school politics, says Democrat-endorsed School Board candidate Mary Kadera.

“To some extent public education has always been political, but this year more so than others,” she said. Her opponent, Mike Webb, was not available for comment.

This year, school choice, school curriculum and COVID-19 safety measures such as mask requirements have made education a hot-button issue in Virginia elections, she says.

“Local school board races are by Virginia law nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean local school districts aren’t affected by education policies and investments made at the state and federal levels,” she said. “I am hoping all voters will examine the candidates’ education platforms carefully because it’s such a significant time for our students and staff, who need our full support as schools have reopened and we’re doing the important work of recovery.”

Meanwhile, voters will also be able to cast ballots in favor or against about $86 million in local government bonds.

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Morning Notes

Dark clouds move across the region, seen from the Shirlington pedestrian bridge over I-395 (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Reduced Metro Service Continues — “Metro continues working to finalize plans in cooperation with safety officials to return the 7000-series railcars to passenger service and fully restore its rail system. As a result, Metrorail service will remain at the current reduced service levels through at least October 31, 2021. During this time, trains will operate basic service every 15-20 minutes on the Red Line and every 30-40 minutes on all other lines.” [WMATA]

APS Online Learning Update — “Arlington Public Schools leaders say they have triaged some of the most pressing fallout from a rocky rollout of the new online-learning initiative, but still have steps to take to ensure the program meets its promises to students and their families. ‘We have had a lot of regretful growing pains – that has been bad,’ frustrated School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres said after an Oct. 14 update on the situation.” [Sun Gazette]

Charges Dismissed in Police Shooting — “A federal judge in Alexandria on Friday dismissed all criminal charges against two U.S. Park Police officers who fatally shot unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in 2017, saying that they reasonably feared that one of the officers was in danger and that their actions following a pursuit of Ghaisar were ‘necessary and proper.’ Prosecutors for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney said they would appeal the ruling.” [Washington Post]

It’s Monday — ⛈ A chance of showers between 2-5 p.m., then showers and thunderstorms — some potentially strong, with heavy rain — in the evening. Partly sunny, with a high near 77. South wind 6 to 13 mph, with gusts as high as 18 mph. Sunrise at 7:27 a.m. and sunset at 6:15 p.m. Tomorrow, it will be mostly cloudy and breezy, with a chance of showers and thunderstorms and a high near 65.

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Arlington Public Schools is preparing to redraw boundaries for a half-dozen schools to relieve high enrollment and over-capacity at three of them.

The boundary process, which will go into effect next fall, is “limited in scope” and will target Abingdon Elementary School, Gunston Middle School and Wakefield High School.

“The boundary process will bring enrollment at these three schools to more manageable levels for the 2022-23 school year by re-assigning some planning units to neighboring schools with capacity to accommodate additional students,” APS said in a School Talk update to parents last week.

For each school, staff will focus on planning units where neither school is in walking distance, according to APS’s 2021 boundary process webpage.

APS says it will move some planning units from Abingdon to Drew Elementary School, which is two miles away. As of Sept. 30, Abingdon has 688 students and a projected capacity utilization rate of 119%, compared to the 433 students and use rate of 76% at Drew.

This direct step to balance enrollment comes on the heels of a less successful attempt to alleviate the overcrowding without redrawing boundaries. During the 2020-21 school year, APS set up a program encouraging families zoned for Abingdon to choose to send their children to Drew, with transportation provided.

Only 12 students took the “targeted transfer” option. School Board members said a dozen students would not make a dent in the schools’ enrollment imbalance and predicted the need for a boundary process.

“[The option] did not come out with numbers that were able to solve the problem,” Board Member Monique O’Grady said during an Aug. 26 School Board meeting. “I did want to point out that we have given the community the choice to go to what I think is a phenomenal school. After trying that, I think we’re at a different point in time, where we maybe need to take more intentional action.”

The renewed focus on Abingdon and Drew also comes three years after another boundary process that would have moved students at both Abingdon and Henry elementary schools to Drew proved controversial.

Some Gunston planning units will be moved to to Thomas Jefferson Middle School, but current Gunston students will not be affected. Gunston has 1,109 students and a projected capacity rate of 112%, compared to Jefferson’s 849 students and 101% use rate.

APS intends to move some planning units from Wakefield to Washington-Liberty High School, but the moves will not impact current Wakefield students. Enrollment and capacity rate margins are closer for the schools: 2,241 versus 2,174 students, and 108% versus 102%, respectively.

APS says the move will also make better use of the additional 500 or so seats at the former Arlington Education Center (1426 N. Quincy Street), which is set to open September 2022.

Despite the limited success of targeted transfers at the elementary level, APS plans to offer them so that current Wakefield students can opt to attend W-L next fall.

During the same August meeting, Executive Director of Planning and Evaluation Lisa Stengle said APS is offering the option because she’s “not sure moving ninth graders will be enough” to balance out Wakefield’s rising enrollment.

“With boundaries we want to be cautious, because we may have to come back and make changes in the future, and we don’t want to have to redo things,” Stengle said. “This way, it’s a choice.”

Community engagement sessions on the boundary process will begin with a virtual meeting on Saturday, Oct. 16. Engagement will run through the end of October.

Superintendent Francisco Durán will propose a more detailed plan during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 16. Two weeks later, on Tuesday, Nov. 30, there will be a public hearing. The School Board is expected to vote on his proposal on Thursday, Dec. 2.

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Elections in Arlington County could change dramatically in the coming years.

First, County Board members are considering whether to do away with first-past-the-post voting for their seats and replace it with ranked-choice voting (RCV). And second, a 16-person bipartisan commission is redrawing boundaries for Virginia’s congressional, state Senate and House of Delegates districts, replacing the former redistricting process led by the state legislature.

As early as a 2022 primary, Arlingtonians could rank their picks for a County Board seat. They are also likely to see one fewer delegate and state senator representing the county.

During a Tuesday County Board meeting, county elections chief Gretchen Reinemeyer fielded questions from members about implementing, calculating and educating the public about ranked-choice voting and previewed how the 2020 U.S. Census could impact Arlington’s electoral districts.

A few Board members expressed their support for the system, also known as “instant runoff,” which selects a winner over the course of many elimination rounds.

“I think it does lead to much healthier campaigns and conversations,” Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol said. “If your second choice is on the Board, making choices on your behalf, even if your first choice isn’t, I think that increases your tie to, and hopefully faith in, government,” she said.

Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said the system could fix issues in Arlington’s electoral process, but he requested more expert input before making a decision.

“Many in our community have said, ‘We don’t just want one party,'” he said. “For me, it would help [to understand] the math and then [lift] up the values that we want in our elections.”

Arlington’s ‘test run’ 

The County Board is expected to decide if RCV it applies to elections for their own seats, and whether it would be used in primaries, the general election, or both.

In 2020, the General Assembly gave municipalities the go-ahead to use ranked-choice voting locally, effective July 1, 2022. At the request of Del. Patrick Hope (D-47), it granted Arlington the ability to test out the system one year in advance.

So far, the county hasn’t taken advantage of this extra time, drawing criticism from this year’s independent candidates for County Board. They say the reform — although it wouldn’t apply this November — would add political diversity to the Board.

“That’s the plot by which some people in our community believe [we] have failed to act,” Board Member Christian Dorsey said.

Reinemeyer said due to an overlooked provision in electoral codes, Arlington couldn’t do anything until the state Board of Elections drafted ballot standards and tabulating rules.

School Board races are exempt both from Hope’s Arlington-specific law and the statewide one. Hope says he couldn’t find support for RCV among School Board members at the time. Still, Hope said he and Del. Sally Hudson (D-57), a sponsor of the statewide bill, are open to including School Boards if ranked-choice voting proves popular.

“I’d be open to bringing a bill in 2022 to expand ranked choice voting that would just apply to the Arlington School Board,” he said. “It could serve as a model for the rest of the Commonwealth.”

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A screenshot from the County Board candidate forum hosted by the NAACP on Monday (via Youtube)

Local candidates offered differing takes on police oversight and demographic disparities in public schools during a candidate forum last night.

The Arlington branch of the NAACP hosted Monday’s forum, featuring the four Arlington County Board candidates — incumbent and Democrat Takis Karantonis and independents Mike Cantwell, Audrey Clement and Adam Theo — as well as School Board candidates Mary Kadera and former Congressional candidate Major Mike Webb.

More than 100 people were in virtual attendance.

The forum addressed two dozen issues facing the county and its communities of color. County Board topics ranged from support for minority-owned businesses to accountability for developers that neighbors say violate construction terms. Schools topics spanned the unequal distribution of Parent-Teacher Association resources to improving outcomes for students of color.

But the sharpest distinctions among County Board candidates came out during a discussion of the powers endowed to the new police oversight board.

This summer, the Arlington County Board established a Community Oversight Board (COB) with subpoena power and authorized the hiring of an Independent Policing Auditor able to investigate community complaints about police officers. The decision, came amid sharp disagreements over whether board had too much, or too little, authority.

“The overall perception from many of the members, [and] people I know who are not NAACP members… is that the board is aligned with interests that are not the ones that the community is telling you we want,” said moderator Wilma Jones Kilgo.

When asked if the COB aligns with their visions, only Karantonis said it did.

“It aligned mostly with [my] vision,” Karantonis said. “We now have to nominate the board, make it work, fund it and staff it.”

Cantwell said the board shouldn’t have subpoena power or investigatory power.

“Elections are where you should hold people accountable,” he said. “You should hold the current County Board, who appoints the County Manager and the police chief, accountable, and vote them out.”

But Theo and Clement said the Community Oversight Board isn’t independent enough.

“I’m glad we got the subpoena power, but it fails utterly with not being able to properly investigate and not being able to follow through with discipline,” Theo said. “It needs to be independent. Right now, it’s still under the County Manager, that isn’t enough.”

Clement, who supports giving the board subpoena power, nonetheless called it “a toothless tiger.”

“In situations where the oversight board exercises concurrent jurisdiction with the police department in a personnel matter, I believe COB should have binding authority, as the likelihood of the police chief honoring a recommendation of the COB that goes against his own decision is nil,” she said.

She also expressed concern that the County Manager, who hires the police chief, also hires the independent auditor.

Later, Karantonis said the County Board has put some pressure on the state to change the law that gives Arlington the power to hire a police auditor.

“It is a flaw that the County Manager formally chooses this person,” he said. “We have asked the General Assembly to change that and fix other flaws in this [provision].”

Meanwhile, Jones pressed Clement and Theo on other issues they raised related to policing and the criminal justice system.

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For the first time since March 2020, most Arlington Public Schools students will be in their classrooms for five days of in-person learning, starting Monday.

Some students will continue at a distance, but overall, the school system says it is focused on three areas this year: accelerated learning, health and safety, and social-emotional learning, according to last night (Thursday’s) School Board meeting.

Parent groups meanwhile, tell ARLnow they are keen to see how these plans to close learning gaps and mitigate the virus’s spread are implemented at local schools.

“Accelerated learning is a key focus for us,” Superintendent Francisco Durán told the School Board during the meeting last night. “What that really means is helping teachers help students focus on grade-level material, while reinforcing what they know from the previous year and what gaps they may have to help them move forward.”

Students will be taught grade-level material with any supports needed to make the content accessible, he said. Teachers will build social-emotional learning into the school day.

Administrators pointed to performance this spring on state standardized tests to illustrate the impact of distance learning. But the data, which contrasted performance in the 2020-21 year with those of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, came with a number of caveats from the Virginia Department of Education.

Participation in VDOE’s Standards of Learning (SOL) testing during the 2020-21 school year was down “significantly” in all subject areas compared with pre-pandemic participation, according to a presentation. For example, only 75.5% of students in tested grades took reading tests in last year, and just under 79% took math tests, compared with 99% in both subjects in 2018-19.

“The major takeaway is that districts should not use 2021 SOL results to compare to previous years,” according to a presentation slide. “Given the wide variability in participation and modalities, comparison of APS students’ scores with neighboring divisions scores is discouraged.”

A few drops were particularly stark, especially in math. Performance rates dropped 20-40 percentage points for students in grades 3-8, for low-income students, for Black, Hispanic and Asian students and for emerging English-language learners.

“Virtual learning had a tremendous impact on mathematics progress,” Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Bridget Loft said last night.

In a statement, Arlington Parents for Education — which advocated for full-time in-person learning while APS was offering remote and then two-day-per-week in-school learning — said the results should surprise no one.

“Superintendent Durán and the school board made a choice to keep Arlington public students from receiving a full day of instruction for over a year. That choice had many consequences —  none so obvious now as the staggering drop in academic decline illustrated in this data,” APE said. “[It’s] the students who didn’t have access to outside tutors, at-home support from parents or pod coaches who were set even further behind their peers.”

The group said APS must tackle educational disparities with research-based best practices and increased instructional time.

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A parent group that got its start advocating for a full return to school during the pandemic is calling on the Arlington County Democratic Committee to end its School Board caucus.

Arlington Parents for Education (APE), which has been vocal recently in its criticism of School Board leadership and Arlington Public Schools’ American Rescue Plan spending amid the coronavirus, says the caucus — most recently held in May, to determine who local Democrats endorse in the general election — discourages broad election participation and makes officials beholden to the political party.

“This ‘endorsement’ effectively decides the outcome of the general election during a little-known caucus in May, because the ACDC places the endorsee’s name on its coveted November sample ballot. To wit: every School Board member since 2003 has been endorsed by the ACDC,” APE said in a statement.

The group added that until this process ends, “the Arlington School Board will continue to put students’ needs last, move in lock-step, and avoid even voting on issues that may be unpalatable to the caucus-voting-minority within the party.”

In Virginia, all School Board races are nonpartisan, meaning parties like Arlington Dems can only endorse candidates, not nominate them as in a primary. But as part of the endorsement caucus, candidates agree not to run in the general election, making the end result similar to a primary.

In a statement, ACDC Chair Jill Caiazzo said the group has the same right as any private organization to support candidates for elected office.

“Arlington Democrats fights every year to elect candidates who will advance Democratic policy priorities at all levels of government, including local races,” she said. “Voters need look no further than the recent alt-right fracas at a Loudoun School Board meeting to understand the importance of Democratic leadership in our schools at this time. Arlington Democrats choose our endorsed candidates for this critical leadership position using the most robust endorsement process of any organization in Arlington, with record-breaking participation in each of the past two years.”

This year, the caucus was held to decide who Democrats will endorse during the Nov. 2 general election to fill a seat held by School Board member Monique O’Grady, who’s not seeking a new term. The 2021 caucus, in which ACDC endorsed former educator Mary Kadera, had in-person and online voting options due to the pandemic, and brought in 6,207 ballots, setting a local record. The lockdown-era mail-in caucus in 2020 brought in 5,700 votes.

For the parent group, that turnout is low, even if record-breaking.

“This means that a School Board seat for a 25,000+ student school system in a county of 233,000 is decided by just 2.5% of the population, and in most years it is even lower,” APE said. “We believe broad participation and civic engagement are cornerstones of democracy.”

The group pointed to a list of self-identified Democrats who also want to see the caucus abandoned, including Parent-Teacher Association members, local NAACP members and former School Board candidates Symone Walker and Miranda Turner.

This spring, Kadera and Turner also critiqued the caucus during a candidate dialogue hosted by the Arlington NAACP.

“With all due respect to Arlington Dems, I’d like them to see them be able to endorse a candidate in the normal way other community organizations do, without running a caucus that can artificially constrain the participation of some people,” Kadera said.

Turner agreed, saying the process — which happens in the spring — confuses people and generates low turnout.

“I think it does tend to discourage folks from voting who would otherwise be very interested in voting for a school board candidate,” she said. “It is in fact a nonpartisan race, and I do think it might be better for the school system as a whole to treat it as such.”

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Morning Notes

Storm clouds to the west, seen from N. Glebe Road around 8:45 p.m. Thursday night (staff photo)

Power Outage Update — As of 8:45 a.m., Dominion reports 3,149 customers in Arlington still without power after last night’s storms, which may have spawned a tornado. [Twitter]

Workers Threatened During Rosslyn Theft — “At approximately 4:54 a.m. on June 30, police were dispatched to the report of a larceny in progress. Upon arrival, it was determined that the suspect allegedly entered a work site and attempted to steal equipment. When confronted by workers, the suspect produced a large wooden stick and threatened them. Responding officers located the suspect on scene and he was taken into custody.” [ACPD]

New School Board Leaders Chosen — “Today, the Arlington School Board held its annual organizational meeting for the 2021-22 school year and elected Dr. Barbara Kanninen as Chair and Reid Goldstein as Vice Chair. The terms for the new Chair and Vice Chair begin immediately and will continue until June 30, 2022.” [Arlington Public Schools]

APS Appoints First COO — “The School Board appointed Dr. John Mayo as the first Chief Operating Officer (COO) for Arlington Public Schools at its July 1 organizational meeting. Dr. Mayo currently serves as a Deputy Superintendent for Petersburg City Public Schools in Petersburg, VA. The COO is a new position that is part of the Superintendent’s reorganization, designed to strengthen operations and provide schools, students, teachers and staff with the needed supports and resources.” [Arlington Public Schools]

Arlington GOP Gets Post-Trump Boost — “The Arlington County Republican Committee continues to see a resurgence in membership – driven, perhaps counterintuitively, by the results of the 2020 national election. ‘We’re close to 100 members,’ said Matthew Hurtt, communications chairman… It’s a major increase since the start of the year, and ‘a testament to excitement and enthusiasm that is happening here in Arlington,’ Hurtt said.” [Sun Gazette]

No Fireworks Viewing Access from DCA — From Reagan National Airport: “July 4 fireworks viewing… Due to major construction impacting our roadways and sidewalks, there is no pedestrian access to Gravelly Point and the Mount Vernon Trail from the airport.” [Twitter]

GMU Launching Center on Race — “George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government will launch its new Race, Politics, and Policy Center in Fall 2021 under the leadership of Professor Michael Fauntroy. Fauntroy, who taught at Mason for 11 years before joining the faculty at Howard University in 2013, returned to Mason in June.” [George Mason University]

Clarendon Nightlife Reminder — “As the region continues to emerge from the pandemic and more patrons participate in nightlife activities, Arlington County is reminding the public about designated weekend pick-up and drop-off zones in Clarendon.” [Arlington County]

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Arlington School Board Chair Monique O’Grady during the June 24 meeting (via Arlington Public Schools)

The Arlington School Board voted during its meeting last night (Thursday) to remove School Resource Officers (SROs) from school buildings.

As part of the vote, SROs — a unit of sworn officers within the Arlington County Police Department — will be moved off-site and will still provide services like driving and substance abuse education, as well as law enforcement support on an as-needed basis.

Officers will get a new title to reflect their new role, such as “youth resource officers,” Superintendent Francisco Durán told the board.

He told the board his recommendation to retain the relationship but relocate the officers is grounded in recommendations made by an APS workgroup that was convened last year to examine the role of SROs after the Arlington branch of the NAACP called for their removal. The local NAACP cited disparities in juvenile arrests in Arlington, in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and the conversation nationwide about race and policing.

“I want to thank my colleagues for their support for moving this piece of historic leadership forward,” Board Chair Monique O’Grady said during the meeting.

Board Vice-Chair Barbara Kanninen commended O’Grady for her work bringing this to fruition.

“I especially want to make clear to the community that this was a priority for you as chair,” she said. “This was the one item, other than dealing with the pandemic, that you committed to, argued strongly for, and now we’re here.”

Over the next two months, Arlington Public Schools will be hammering out a new Memorandum of Understanding with the Arlington County Police Department to prepare for the start of school this fall, said APS Chief of Staff Brian Stockton.

“The last one took nine months this time we’re going to try and speed it up,” he said.

The decision comes nearly two months after a School Resource Officer helped to secure Wakefield High School in response to a call from a staff member, who alleged a student was making threats and had what was described as a bulletproof vest.

Funding for SROs, a total of $3 million, comes from Arlington County and is a gift to APS, Stockton said.

Some speakers argued for reinvesting the $3 million in mental health services.

Among them was rising Washington-Liberty High School junior Benjamin Portner, who told board members about his experience with SROs in elementary school and how still today, he carries “a great deal of nervousness when they pass me in the hall or even when they try to speak friendly manner.”

“Having them on and off-campus is a constant reminder to these students, and really all students, that the potential for violence remains in schools,” he said.

Board Member Cristina Diaz-Torres said she agreed with his sentiments and those of other speakers who asked for the $3 million to be reinvested in mental health services, but concluded that it is not a possibility at this time.

“[The vote] is a step forward, but it is certainly not the end of the journey: There is so much more that needs to be done,” she said. “We need to do to beef up the mental health resources for our students, so we can ensure that any student in crisis has the resources they need and they never have to interact with an SRO or the criminal-legal system at all.”

APS is the second district in the region to remove SROs from schools.

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Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (courtesy of Sean Nguyen)

Months after parents and students wondered if rising freshmen in Arlington could attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the results are in.

The Class of 2025 will include Arlington kids, although the exact number is not known.

The results, released Wednesday, cap a turbulent admissions cycle. Fairfax County Public Schools made significant changes to the school admissions criteria — among them scrapping a standardized test and written teacher recommendation — which parents protested and challenged with two lawsuits.

The changes resulted in the school’s “most diverse class in recent history.”

Thomas Jefferson, nicknamed “TJ,” is a STEM-focused magnet school open to students from Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties who meet certain academic requirements to get in. US News ranks it as the number one public high school in the United States.

While Arlington annually sends students to the school, the relationship is not a steady one. When facing a budget deficit, Arlington Public Schools sometimes suggests cutting funding. That happened earlier this year, when Superintendent Francisco Durán’s proposed budget for the 2021-22 school year, which had a $42 million gap, put TJ funding on the chopping block.

In response, some Arlington parents and students mobilized to advocate for funding tuition. Then-sophomore Lauren Fisher was among four parents and students to speak at a School Board hearing on March 23.

“If I were to sum up TJ in a few words, it would be an animated community of nerds,” Fisher said. “The students there are incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging, and this energy is contagious. I’ve never felt more encouraged to try or learn new things regardless of how nerdy they might be.”

When the School Board released its amended budget in early April, TJ was no longer among the next school year’s cuts, though the reason for the reversal was not clear.

Still, Arlington students’ access to the magnet school could end in a future budget cycle. Director of Secondary Education Tyrone Byrd tells ARLnow that in difficult budget situations, funding for the magnet school would be among the first of proposed cuts.

“Our commitment is to APS kids and APS buildings, that’s our first priority,” Byrd said. “As far as I know, there’s no purposeful movement toward removing TJ from our options to kids, but when it gets tight, we have to start looking for avenues to correct that.”

Former TJ parent Jennifer Atkin, who remains involved in the Arlington-TJ community, recalled a similar effort two years ago when then-Superintendent Patrick Murphy suggested cutting transportation funding.

“I believe one of the values that Arlington and the School Board profess is equity and access, and I think there’s a feeling amongst parents that in order for them to make good on that they really need to continue the relationship that they have with TJ,” Atkin said. “If you cut off access to this public education opportunity, what you’re really doing is cutting off access to [specialized] programs to the people who are middle and lower-income within Arlington, which runs counter to this idea that you’re promoting equity and access.”

Atkin suggests that the magnet school remains a target for budget cuts because the Arlington-TJ community is relatively small, and tuition cuts would anger fewer people than cuts to other programs. Byrd disputes that theory, saying that the county considers these cuts because the APS prioritizes its own resources first and foremost.

Should access to her school be in danger next year, senior Alexandra Fall said she is prepared to pick up where she left off in April, writing to board members and motivating peers to take action.

“I would try to get people involved,” Fall said. “I know that the community of Arlington kids at TJ is very strong because they ride the buses together and they’ve all come from a similar place.”

Fall and Atkin said they doubt the struggle to keep Arlington students at TJ will ever reach a resolution.

The problem is with every election cycle, the composition of the school board changes,” Atkin said. “Even if this school board were to say, ‘We’re going to stop proposing cuts to TJ,’ it doesn’t mean that the next school board will operate the same way. That’s the nature of politics.”

Photo courtesy of Sean Nguyen

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A number of changes could be coming soon to the police department’s School Resource Officers unit that serves Arlington Public Schools.

On Thursday, June 24, the School Board is slated to consider reforms proposed by Superintendent Francisco Durán. Among them, Durán recommends stationing SROs near schools — but not within them — and shifting some responsibilities they handle onto school staff. As of now, he is not recommending changing the number of sworn officers assigned to schools.

“The decision to relocate SROs… is not to diminish the longstanding partnership that we have with ACPD but instead to focus on increasing student supports by effectively utilizing the support structures we have in place,” Durán said during a School Board meeting on Thursday. “The nonenforcement support duties performed by SROs in schools will be something we should focus on having APS staff provide.”

Such changes would require revisions to APS’s Memorandum of Understanding with ACPD. The superintendent said APS is discussing new locations for the officers with the county.

“I want to thank [SROs] for the work they have done,” he said. “They have played an important role in keeping our schools safe and I believe they will continue to do that.”

The recommendations come a few weeks after a School Resource Officer secured Wakefield High School in response to a call from a staff member, who alleged a student was making verbal threats and had what was described as a bulletproof vest.

SROs received renewed attention a few years ago after a rise in school shootings. But the Arlington branch of the NAACP called for their removal, citing disparities in juvenile arrests in Arlington, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police prompted a national conversation about race and policing. An APS workgroup was subsequently formed and received a wave of community input.

Durán said his changes are grounded in the recommendations from this workgroup.

APS Chief of Staff Brian Stockton said members were evenly split: one third supported SROs in schools, another third did not, and the remaining third had no strong opinions. The final recommendations were backed by a surprising amount of consensus, he said.

“We were shocked that when we presented those recommendations, we didn’t have one person who pushed back,” he said, although there was some disagreement over the difference between relocating School Resources Officers and “getting them out of schools.”

Board members congratulated the group for its efforts and many welcomed the recommendations, including Chair Monique O’Grady.

“One of the things I heard from the community members was that they didn’t want to dishonor the police throughout this process. I think they walked away with respect for the officers who have chosen to try and be supportive of students the way they can be,” she said. “I do think it’s time — where we are in this nation and the concerns we see across the country — that we think differently [about SROs]. I think that that was a lot of what we heard from students as well.”

Board Member Cristina Diaz-Torres said in an ideal world, every ACPD officer would be trained in how to deal more effectively with youth, but until then, these changes mark a good intermediate step.

“It’s no secret that I believe police don’t belong in schools,” she said. “I think there is an excellent educational role they can play when called upon… but it’s important that it is not a consistent presence — it is finite and limited in scope and use.”

She added that the change will not solve discipline discrepancies in Arlington.

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