I am a candidate for School Board for the Samuel Miller District of Albemarle County, Virginia. The election takes place on November 3, 2015.
MY CAMPAIGN PITCH
Our schools have a very important mission to educate our children to become responsible citizens and to set them up for successful careers or follow-on education. I think our schools are doing a wonderful job even in this resource-constrained environment. We know that these challenges are not going away, but I firmly believe that we can maintain the high quality of education that our schools provide, if we have effective and responsible oversight of the budget. We need board members who will critically examine every aspect of our budget, to cut waste, and to ensure that every program we fund adds value to our school system.
In my past academic and professional experiences, I’ve had to analyze a lot of complex issues that affect a lot of people and, in some cases, influence millions of dollars in defense spending, and I’ve done it by immersing myself in the details of every issue and studying a variety of perspectives to come to a balanced and reasonable judgment. If elected, I will bring that same disciplined and unbiased analysis to every issue before the board. I pledge to serve with integrity, transparency, and humility, because I’m not running for myself or any special agenda. I will note that, in this nonpartisan election, I’m the only candidate who has not sought the endorsement of a political party. I will serve no partisan agenda. I’m running to serve the interests of our students and the community at large. I respectfully ask for your vote on November 3rd.
LEARN ABOUT THE CANDIDATES’ POSITIONS
At our candidate forum on October 6, my opponents (Graham Paige and Mike Basile) and I discussed our positions on a variety of issues, and some major differences emerged that I’d like to highlight below. Based on our perspectives and positions, I’d like to first characterize your choices for School Board:
- Graham Paige: the choice for more spending and higher taxes. Mr. Paige said quite plainly last week that he will not cut any spending from the school budget and actually wants to expand failed programs. So expect our funding gap of $21 million in FY 2021 to grow even larger, and expect to pay higher tax rates, which Mr. Paige supports, to cover our funding gap.
- Mike Basile: the choice for much, much less spending, reallocation of funding toward struggling children, and (hopefully) more private sector involvement to cover cuts to programs that benefit all other students.
- Brian Vanyo: the reasonable (Goldilocks “just right”) choice (see campaign pitch above and my positions below).
My position: I do not support expanding our pre-K programs. First, they fall outside of the School Board’s K-12 charter. Secondly, the most comprehensive study of pre-K education, the national Head Start Impact Study (HSIS), shows that pre-K programs have no lasting impact on a child’s academic success. See reports about this study here, here, and here. Critics of this study contend that the Head Start programs in the study were not “high-quality,” hence you now hear pre-K advocates today call for “high-quality” pre-K programs. But other studies show that the Head Start programs tested in the HSIS were no different than those considered to be high-quality programs. Studies also show that curriculum quality and teacher education have very low correlations with cognitive and social-emotional outcomes in preschool programs. So we should not expand programs that have no educational benefit, particularly at a time when we have shrinking capacity in our schools to house these programs.
Mr. Paige’s position: Mr. Paige wants to expand our pre-K programs for all county children, apparently without regard to the failure of these programs to affect lasting educational achievement and without regard for our schools’ lack of capacity to house these programs. He said:
I do think that we really do need universal pre-K for all of our county kids. And so I think the county really should spend money for all of the schools and for the entire program.
Mr. Basile’s position: Mr. Basile supports expanding our pre-K programs to help “at risk” children on the basis of perceived demand by some groups, but he believes that public and private institutions should share in the responsibility to provide pre-K programs. He said:
The desire to have more pre-K programs in our schools is, I think, is very strong by a lot of groups, especially those in Title I school areas. . . . We’ve really got to focus some attention to resources in these areas because these are kids that are at risk, they need assistance, and they need to get up to speed because we can’t lose them in our school system. We need them to be productive and happy members of society when they get out of school, so we really do need to focus here. It’s going to take a lot of effort, and [we need to] look at private resources and private institutions to help provide the pre-K schooling as well. We can’t just leave it all up to government-run programs.
SCHOOL BUDGET FUNDING GAP
My position: According to the county’s 5-Year Financial Plan, our schools face a $6.4 million funding gap next fiscal year. That gap is projected to grow each year and will reach $21 million by FY 2021. The local government’s funding gap is also forecasted to grow from $2.4 million next year to $10.7 million in FY 2021.
The School Board cannot depend on the Board of Supervisors to cover its funding gap because the money won’t be there. The School Board must responsibly manage its budget and look for areas of excess that can be cut to ensure that everything we fund adds value to our school system.
For example, we ought to scrutinize more closely our non-teacher staffing levels to determine if they are justified. Staffing level requirements are established within the Virginia Standards of Quality (SOQ), which are created by the Virginia Board of Education with input from educators, parents, students, employers, civic and community leaders, and all other interested citizens. For state-mandated positions, the state provides almost 35% of the cost of these positions, and where our school district exceeds these standards, we must pay 100% of the cost. If we must bear the entire cost of excess staffing levels—and we exceed state standards in every staffing category—then we need to justify these positions. Currently, every excessive staffing level in the Albemarle County school district is rationalized by the following empty statement in our school budget: “A core value of the Division is that more personal attention to students yields results.” I support exceeding the SOQ for teacher positions to maintain low student-to-teacher ratios, but the board ought to apply greater scrutiny to positions that don’t directly impact student learning.
Mr. Paige’s position: Mr. Paige stated quite plainly that he would not cut any spending from the school budget. In fact, he hopes to institute a county-wide pre-K program that dramatically increase costs and greatly expand our funding gap over time (as well as exacerbate our overcrowding problems). Mr. Paige justified this extravagant spending by associating spending with school quality. His words:
I can’t think of one single program that we should be cutting from the schools. . . . I would be in favor of increasing the pre-K program, because we do have quite a few poor families within our communities, like Mr. Basile mentioned, and some of them cannot really afford quality pre-K programs. And so I think if the county had a county-wide pre-K program that would be something I would be in favor of expanding. But I can’t think of one single program that I would be in favor of eliminating because by doing so, I think we’d be reducing the quality of our schools, and sort of lowering our standards. And I don’t think we should do that.
So if Mr. Paige has no plans to cut spending—and in fact if he intends to increase spending with new county-wide pre-K programs—then how does he plan to close the funding gap, which will only balloon if he’s elected to the board? More taxes. Mr. Paige will present to the public the false choice that our taxes must increase or the quality of our schools will suffer. He said:
One way that we could maybe bring in some new revenue would be to have a referendum on at least capital projects, and that would at least make up some of the difference or at least give the public some input as to whether or not they’d be willing to spend. And then also maybe I’d even try to suggest that possibly a tax increase could be incurred even though that might not be a really popular thing, but that might be necessary if you really want to maintain this excellent system that Albemarle County does have.
Mr. Basile’s position: Mr. Basile understands that our School Board must be more responsible with the money entrusted to it. He advocates getting “the public involved with the planning stages” of the budget to solve our budget problems. His comments:
Let’s get the public involved with the planning stages rather than this reactionary “Oh my gosh! We’re short in our budget! We need to get the public to pay more money!” We just need to plan better and get the public involved to find new solutions to these problems. They just need to be addressed by the public.
I’m all for greater public engagement, but our residents have many opportunities to get involved the budget process now. I believe the board simply needs to show greater leadership in addressing its financial problems. Mr. Basile also suggests that private organizations and individuals ought to do more to fund our school system. He said:
We want to find alternative means to fund them. If these are valuable programs for our public for some of the parents, if these are valuable programs for some of our businesses in town, then it’s time to start funding them through some private funds, some donations, etc. We can work on developing trusts or other organizations to collect monies to fund these programs.
I disagree. If there are valuable programs that contribute to academic achievement, then they fall within the purview of the school board and ought to be funded in the school budget. That’s why our public school system exists. I don’t believe that we should outsource funding responsibilities for valuable programs just to cut costs.
Mr. Basile also made the following statement related to budget priorities:
So we’re going to have to give our students that are struggling the most and that are likely to get out of school the earliest the benefit of the resources and take them away from other programs where private education and institutions can fulfill those gaps or private funding can pick up the slack for them.
I disagree. I do support resources for students with learning disabilities. But I can’t agree that we should strip funding from achieving students, force private institutions to pick up the tab, and then direct most of our funding toward failing students who are likely to drop out of school. I believe that there are limits to what our teachers can do in the classroom. If a student lacks the will or the support structure at home to succeed in school, then no level of attention or funding will change that student’s prospect for academic achievement. We shouldn’t limit the resources and opportunities of the large majority of our students who are doing well in school just because they are doing well in school.
Our positions: Mr. Paige, Mr. Basile, and I all agree that the school division has responsibly addressed its near-term capacity issues by forming a Redistricting Advisory Committee to look at available options to resolve overcrowding at some schools. We will need to redistrict some students who would attend Albemarle High School into the district feeding Monticello High School. We also agree that moving some students from Greer Elementary to spaces at Jouett Middle School would best resolve overcrowding there.
But I do have some concern about Mr. Basile’s proposed solution for future growth in the student population. He said:
Looking at the long-range plan and action report, we’re looking at probably another 500 seats perhaps to go in our schools, so creative redistricting solutions is a necessary step before we look at perhaps doing some alternative at-home school using the video technology that will be coming available that we can develop.
I don’t think we have enough information about at-home online learning to push it as a viable alternative to classroom learning at this time. We need to ensure that we manage student growth in a responsible way. Efficiency is an important objective, but is should not be the only consideration when it comes to long-range planning.
There are many perceived benefits of online learning, such as flexible access to learning and individualized pace of progression. But the fact is, there is not enough information available to know whether online learning for K-12 students will improve student performance, according to a 2010 Department of Education study. We should continue to explore online instruction as a way to improve student learning, given its potential to benefit students, particularly when online instruction is blended with face-to-face instruction. But we cannot look to online instruction solely as a cost-cutting measure—we have to ensure that it will benefit our students.
WORLD LANGUAGE PROGRAMS
My position: Studies show that there are significant cognitive benefits to becoming fluent in more than one language. So this seems to be a good investment, especially if we implement immersion programs in our elementary schools like we have at Cale Elementary. According to our Director of K-12 education, immersion programs are cost neutral. Another reason why immersion programs make sense is that we have many Spanish-speaking students in the county. The most successful immersion programs are those with a 50/50 split between students who speak English and those who speak another language, and so we ought to leverage our demographics to build successful language programs.
My daughter is in her first year in the immersion program at Cale, and after not even two months in the program, I can see how she’s really benefiting from it. My oldest daughter is taking Spanish-I in the 7th grade, and even she will admit that she is not as fluent as my 7-year-old in some areas. So I think the program has merit, but before expanding this kind of instruction, I do think that we need some kind of objective measure to show that children in the program are performing at least as well those who are not in the program. But in general, I think these programs have value, provided that their cost remains low.
Mr. Paige’s position: Mr. Paige agrees that world language programs are beneficial and should be expanded to form “one culture.” He said:
I think that we really should be expanding our program in foreign languages because of how important it will be since the world is really shrinking and just that “one culture” thing, that “one culture” idea, would be something that we would really be able to move into if we know more and more about foreign languages and our students do.
Mr. Basile’s position: Mr. Basile believes that, although the world languages programs are “incredible programs,” funding for these programs ought to be reallocated to more needy students. He said:
We have students who are having trouble reading English, and we’re creating these wonderful, incredible programs to teach more and more of our elementary students foreign languages. I think this is a great example of a program that we can allocate its resources better to students who are more in need of them. I understand and I bet everyone in this county understands that if you teach our students to be fluent in a second language that that will do wonders for their cognitive abilities. But we have to focus on our students in our schools, especially those who are struggling, and we need to put the resources to them. So to me, I would recommend “no,” we’re not going to expand the world language programs. The other thing the world language program does is it allocates the teaching resources to the world languages where we really need additional teaching resources to other curricula. And I think if Thomas Jefferson were around, he would probably have some other ideas where to allocate some teacher resources. Perhaps there would be some instruction on religious foundation. Perhaps there would be more instruction on the Constitution and the founding documents that preserve and allow our freedoms that our children are going to be responsible for maintaining as they become adults.
STANDARDS OF LEARNING
Our positions: Mr. Paige, Mr. Basile, and I generally agree that standardized testing via the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams does not benefit our schools, teachers, or students. The number of SOLs should be reduced, and we ought to trust our teachers’ and local administrators’ abilities to instruct our students and measure their academic progress.
A 2011 National Research Council report concluded that standardized tests fail to give a complete measure of student achievement. And so I don’t think such tests should play a major role in education. They can be used by teachers as benchmarks for their students’ progress, but teachers should not be judged and schools should not be graded on their students’ SOL test results. This tends to create incentives for teachers to teach to the test instead of providing more comprehensive learning. And by doing that, the test results may actually give a false sense of how well students are actually doing.
Note: All quotes were pulled from the candidate forum audio recording, which is available at Charlottesville Tomorrow.
In the Media
- Albemarle School Board Candidates on budget (C-ville Weekly, 10-28-2015)
- Albemarle School Board candidates on world languages (C-ville Weekly, 10-21-2015)
- Albemarle School Board candidates outline priorities (C-ville Weekly, 10-18-2015)
- In it to win it: A comprehensive guide to the 2015 election (C-ville Weekly, 10-7-2015)
- Spending, testing among topics at forum for Samuel Miller seat on Albemarle School Board (Charlottesville Tomorrow, 10-6-2015)
- Radio interview with Joe Thomas (WCHV, 107.5FM + 1260AM, 10-5-2015)
- Albemarle School Board special election taking shape (Charlottesville Tomorrow, 7-26-2015)