The five candidates for three District B seats on the Alexandria City School Board agreed about the proper direction for the school district more often than they disagreed during an amiable candidates forum Monday night at Beverley Hills Community United Methodist Church.
The city is divided into three voting districts, and three board members are elected from each district. Each member serves a three-year term. District B encompasses the central portion of Alexandria and part of the West End.
The candidates fielded questions from the audience on school overcrowding, the achievement gap and their opinions of Superintendent Morton Sherman. On the role of the superintendent and how to improve communication between the superintendent and school board, candidate Michael Brookbank said the superintendent needs to be evaluated in the same manner as teachers and implement the board’s policies without “running roughshod over anyone.”
“We have a very strong superintendent, very powerful, very smart, very bright,” Brookbank said. “ ... It’s going to take an equally strong, forceful voice on the board to counter that.”
Candidate Justin Keating said Sherman has unfairly taken the blame for things that are not his fault. He directed the focus of attention to the school board.
“Those nine people should be the ones that get more of that attention and that have more of a burden for communicating out to the community the decisions that are being made, and the decisions that are not being made,” Keating said.
Candidate Chyrell Bucksell told the crowd Sherman doing a good job overseeing improvements in the school district, although some of his reforms have happened too quickly. Incumbent school board member Marc Williams said he believed Sherman communicates with the community appropriately.
“He’s following the direction of the board, and that’s his job,” Williams said.
Keating challenged Williams, saying Sherman had not been clear on matters of teacher retention. “That’s a perfect example of communication with the community,” he said.
Candidate Kelly Carmichael Booz called Sherman a visionary but added he has implemented some changes too fast without input from teachers.
“We do need to make sure that he’s not doing too much, too fast, and that he’s not overwhelming our educators, which has a significant, significant impact on our students,” she said.
The Achievement Gap
Most candidates agreed that the school district’s achievement gap was the most pressing problem facing the system.
“It’s our greatest blessing and our greatest curse that we have so many people densely packed into a city, and you have people in affordable housing and people in $1.5 million homes,” Keating said. The achievement gap has improved, he said, but is the “one thing we are still stuck on.”
“I think we’re on the right path,” said Bucksell, who championed pre-kindergarten initiatives. “We’re shown some challenging gains.”
Carmichael Booz also stressed the importance of pre-K education. “A lot of students don’t have the opportunity to have pre-K education,” she said. “They don’t have that opportunity, and they’re not as ready when they come to school.”
Brookbank said the district needs to raise both top scoring students and lower-performing students. “We need to make sure that we don’t damage the top and allow everyone to continue to grow,” he said.
Overcrowding and Redistricting
Bucksell told the audience the district needs five new schools at current enrollment rates. The school district and Alexandria City Council need to work together to find funding to build new schools, she said, adding that redistricting would help but not solve the problem.
Williams said since 2008, enrollment has grown by 2,600 students. The board has planned construction for a second floor at Charles Barrett Elementary School and is making use of modular classrooms, he said.
“Redistricting, with as full of our schools, is not a long-term solution,” Williams said.
Carmichael Booz opined that a study currently under development by the school district will help show the best way to handle the problem. Brookbank cited new residential developments as a source of overcrowding. “What we’re doing right now is short-term, workaround fixes,” he said, adding that redistricting needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Keating stressed the need to engage city council to help provide education opportunities for the increase in students. Redistricting is not a long-term solution, he said.
Other topics included how to improve teacher morale, with candidates stressing the need to listen to and respond to teachers’ concerns, as well as giving them a voice in school district processes. The candidates also discussed how to increase science and math participation.
The Monday candidate forum was sponsored by the North Ridge Citizens Association.