Leesburg Today: Last Words: Chamber Hosts Final School Board Candidate Forum

One week before Election Day, the 24 candidates for the Loudoun School Board got a final chance to illustrate how they stand out among the rest. The Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce hosted the candidate forum Tuesday morning at the Belmont Country Club.

The candidates were split into three panels, and each was asked four questions. The questions touched on some of Loudoun County Public Schools’ hot-button issues such as the acquiring land for new schools, the relationship between the School Board and the Board of Supervisors and the use of technology in the classroom.

Comments from the incumbents in the race pointed to what is going well in the school system and the gains the School Board has made-from improving the business-school partnership to keeping up with record-breaking growth-throughout the last four years. New candidates maintained a message of the need for reform and improvements in how the school system spends money, how it trains teachers, how it prepares students for careers and how it acquires land for schools, among others.

The first panel of candidates was asked whether Loudoun is competitive enough in recruiting high-performing teachers and rewarding the ones it already has. Current School Board Chairman and Algonkian District candidate John Stevens suggested introducing a new pay scale to reward people who enter education as their second career. “We need a pay scale that reflects that kind of mobility in the workforce as the rest of the workforce has,” he said.

One of his challengers, Debbie Rose, challenged Stevens’ comments about the need to improve pay for teachers. She referred to the School Board’s decision last year to give teachers two furlough days to save needed money. Prior to the scheduled days off in November 2010, the board received federal dollars to pay teachers for those two days, even though they remained school holidays. The school system later had a surplus, which the School Board voted to partially spend on interactive white boards for classrooms.

“He said we could all feel good about the furlough money because it could go to the teachers, but that money didn’t go to the teachers,” Rose said. “That money went to interactive white boards and GPS for buses. I don’t think it’s very genuine when he says he wants to put that money back into teachers because the evidence is contrary.”

The third candidate for the Algonkian District Eileen Tagg-Murdock, a former LCPS teacher, said teachers need a competitive salary, but also need more training once hired. “I think that teachers feel very overwhelmed and they need a greater support system,” she said.

When asked about how the school system can improve its relationship with the business community, Catoctin District candidate Paul Arias said he’d like to see the school system working with businesses to offer student internships. “I truly believe that if children had the opportunity to do limited internship, they might change their career path and they might understand what it’s like to live in the real world.”

Catoctin District incumbent Jennifer Bergel responded: “We have business partnerships. A lot of this has been going on.” She added that there is room for improvement. “Let’s start bringing more business leaders into the schools during the day so you can see what you can do to help,” she said.

A question about technology in the classroom brought a variety of answers from candidates. Dulles District candidate Jeff Morse urged the school system to allow others to go before Loudoun in testing new waves of technology, such as replacing textbooks with digital tablets. Blue Ridge District candidate Jill Turgeon said the school system should not focus as much on the gadgets, but purely on what will improve learning in the classroom, saying “As an educator, I am well aware that education has very little to do with the tools that we use, but the interaction between a teacher and a student.”

She challenges incumbent and current School Board Vice Chair Priscilla Godfrey, who reminded the roughly 60 people in the audience that Loudoun will need to bring in improved technology sooner rather than later.
“Virginia is going to go totally digital with their tests, and it’s very difficult for us to do that with the four computers we have in each classroom, so one way of getting around that is to give students a 1-to-1 device,” she said.

The third panel pitched ideas about how to better prepare students for higher education and the workforce. All five Ashburn District candidates voiced their support for equipping students for their careers earlier.

Chris Souther suggested encouraging businesses to get involved to teach career skills, such as Volkswagen of America training the next generation of automobile engineers right here in Loudoun.

John Ryan said he wants to see more options for students to fit their unique learning styles and interests. Similar to Souther, Debbie Piland suggested bringing businessmen and women, such as architects into the classroom.

John Andrews agreed that students should be engaged in what they might do after high school well before their senior year. “You see the rest of the world-Europe, Asia-that have ways of getting students interested earlier in their career paths,” he said.

Eric Hornberger showed his support for a variety of education models for Loudoun students, including charter, magnet and vocational schools, as well as more involvement with the local business and nonprofit communities. “These are ways we can provide opportunities for students to think broader,” he said, “and expose them to their world.”

The candidate forum was the fourth of its kind the Loudoun Chamber has hosted this election season. Anjan Chimaladinne and Margaret Michaud, both Dulles District candidates, and Sterling District candidate and incumbent Brenda Sheridan, who is running unopposed, did not attend.

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