Alexandria School Board candidates in District B debated for the second time Wednesday night, with differences emerging in their opinions of teacher morale and the relationship between the board and City Council.
The event was held in the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School cafeteria and hosted by the Taylor Run Citizens Association. The event came a week after the candidates met for a debate in North Ridge that offered more agreement than disagreement.
That wasn’t the case on Wednesday.
When asked about teacher retention and morale, Justin Keating said there’s a “systemic morale problem” despite Alexandria’s teachers being among the best compensated in the region.
Keating said teachers have been frustrated by the swift integration of new programs like Success For All (District A candidates debated Success For All in a forum last week). He said that metrics are needed to determine whether or not these programs are working.
Marc Williams, the lone incumbent in District B, denied there was a morale problem.
“I reject the thought our teachers don’t love teaching in Alexandria,” he said. “To simply say this is a systemic problem, it just ain’t so.”
He said the school system is in the midst of massive changes to boost achievement. He said “anxiety” is expected in such situations.
“The last four years, we’ve tried to put children first,” he said.
Williams said there was a need for a “sense of urgency” in the implementation of some programs, but ultimately there have been “great gains” in standardized reading tests as a result of Success For All. He also said Alexandria continues to have some of the smallest class sizes and highest teacher salaries in Northern Virginia.
“Teachers feel like they don’t have a voice in what is happening,” Brookbank said.
“Salary and class size alone won’t help alone,” Carmichael Booz said. “There has to be respect, and teachers must be involved.”
Chyrell Bucksell said professional development for not just teachers but administrators and others is important in raising morale and retention rates.
When the subject of the relationship between the School Board and City Council came up, Brookbank said it needs improvement.
He said an accounting firm’s declaration in March that the management of ACPS’ Capital Improvement Program was “dysfunctional” has made things tough, especially when ACPS needs funds to address new facilities.
“How do I go to council and say ‘trust me’?” he said. “We have to make a very good case. … It’s going to be very difficult.”
In March, the “dysfunctional” definition even pushed Vice Mayor Kerry Donley to call for the resignation of ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman, something Keating said set off some sniping between the two bodies that only “hurts the kids.”
Keating anticipates the next council and board will have a new kind of relationship. He mentioned wanting to partner up with council members to lobby for funding from Richmond and elsewhere.
Bucksell said questions from voters about Sherman’s tenure only came forward when “a city council member said something about him.” She said doing more than just holding work sessions would help improve the relationship between the two bodies.
Williams said ACPS already works closely with the city, which keeps a demographer on staff to assist when enrollment projections.
“The city, quite frankly, has been very generous,” he said. “But too many city council members say something about only 10 percent of the city’s residents having kids. … The strength of the community is based on how it educates and treats its kids.”
Carmichael Booz said both bodies “need to be on the same page.”
She said the board needs to prioritize funding to tackle the achievement gap, which she said can be directly confronted by investing in early education, reaching out to kids at the low-income level and having conversations about finding places for more pre-K classrooms.
District B voters can select up to three candidates on their Nov. 6 ballot.