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School Board Questionnaire: Justin Keating

Patch asked candidates for School Board to complete a questionnaire to shed some light on where candidates stand in issues important to Alexandria City Public Schools. Here's what they had to say.

Patch School Board Candidate Questionnaire

District B Candidate Justin Keating

Name: Justin P. Keating 
Age: 36 
Occupation: Attorney 
Incumbent or non-incumbent: Non-incumbent 
How long have you been an Alexandria resident? 2005-present (before that from 1999-2002) 
Which neighborhood do you live in? Rosemont/Maury School 
Website, Facebook page or other contact information: email: keating@justinkeating.info
www.justinkeating.info
Twitter: JustinPKeating 

What unique perspective, experience or expertise would you bring to the School Board?

My professional experience will serve me well on the Board. One of my primary functions on behalf of my clients is holding administrations (of public and private organizations that employ my clients’ members) accountable for their actions. This requires asking difficult questions that those in authority do not want to answer and will do all they can to avoid answering. Follow up is important. It requires reading large amounts of information, sometimes quickly, to find the key points that require further questioning that may expose problems. Most good advocates understand opposing positions almost as well as their own positions; this will be very useful when I have to vote on divisive and controversial issues before the Board. My legal specialty requires me to work creatively to find common ground among stakeholders that may at first seem to have conflicting interests. Because of my experience, I have come to believe that following a good process leads to a legitimate result. This applies easily to personnel decisions, procurement awards and substantive policy decisions.

I also have two children entering ACPS in the next three years. When addressing many of the pressing issues of the Board, I will have a similar perspective to so many other parents who have a stake in the matter.

What are top challenges facing ACPS and how do you plan to engage the community to address them?

There are many challenges in our school system. The issues I will list here are those for which I think direct community engagement throughout the process is particularly important. I believe this will call for Board members themselves to be active participants.

  1. Curriculum/Program changes at the elementary schools: The community needs to be better informed of planned changes, and on a timeline that allows for parental input on any changes. (I also want more open teacher input, but that is not what this question asked.) We have very intelligent parents in this City, it only makes sense to take advantage of their ideas. We will never come to a final plan that makes everyone happy, but the opportunity for input is the key.   
  2. Improving ACPS’s public image: ACPS has a communications staff. It needs to be more proactive and more focused on broader outreach. Why don’t we hear more about the fantastic things going on in our schools? Sure, you see some of it if you read ACPS’s Twitter feed, but there are only 1,200 followers there. I think the public image efforts need to be especially strengthened for the middle schools.
  3. Improving the chances for at-risk children to succeed from their earliest years: ACPS needs to partner, in some cases just informally, with other entities to figure out what tools each child needs to succeed in school and life. This can include outside recreation groups, other government agencies, community/civic associations, etc.

What role do the members of the School Board play in ensuring transparency and accountability at the ACPS Central Office?

Board members SHOULD play a much more public role as the face of ACPS. On this question, I would like to speak in terms of what I would like to do to improve transparency. I plan to meet regularly, both formally and informally, with as many community and parent groups (and even individuals) to discuss their ideas, concerns and criticisms. I would like to set up a regular e-mail newsletter explaining my own decisions and actions as a Board member, backing them up when appropriate with data. Although the Board is the policy setting and oversight body for ACPS, the Board members are also the only people that citizens have the opportunity to vote for (or in a sense to hire and fire). As such, I want to answer to them. As for accountability, the Board needs to ask more questions, and then more follow up questions, about the administration’s efforts to implement programs and policies. For example, if the administration begins a new reading plan in some elementary schools, I want a written plan upon implementation of what our metrics for evaluation will be, when we will get progress reports with those metrics, and what our standards of success are. Discussions between Board and administration and community will be essential throughout. This concept is applicable to facility construction projects, hiring efforts, etc.

What is your opinion of the superintendent’s job performance?

This is a difficult question because I think his performance has been mixed. In many ways, I believe our schools are better off now than when he started here. He deserves at least some credit for those improvements, although the bulk of the credit goes to the staff and communities that have worked so hard. On the other hand, I believe that his management style has driven some good employees out of our system and has frustrated many parents who feel ACPS is run too much like a dictatorship. Some of those frustrations are justified, but are not entirely Sherman’s fault. I believe that the next Board will be a very active one, and that if Dr. Sherman accepts this new relationship that it could be very fruitful for our schools. It is my belief that the Board should take more of the blame than Dr. Sherman if citizens are not happy with the state of our schools. Improvements and progress should be credited to staff, students and citizens.

Frankly, the continued discussion of whether Dr. Sherman is a good or bad is a distraction. We should be focusing on the many bright spots in the system and figuring out how to expand them to other parts of the system. With a strong School Board, that effort will depend less and less on whether Dr. Sherman is as good as his supporters think he is or as bad as a lot of parents think he is.  

How can a School Board member improve communication between ACPS and parents/caregivers?

My answer here is somewhat similar to my answer above about transparency. The difference on this question is that any particular Board member, no matter how well intentioned or diligent with communication efforts, should be the contact point for parents on all things related to the schools. It is not practical and I do not have the subject matter expertise that our professionals do. That said, the Board should create a culture of communication so that ACPS staff feels comfortable in that culture. Some principals have already built this culture at their schools. We need those principals to share their methods with other principals and members of central staff. This is peer mentoring at its best. 

What are some of your ACPS budget priorities? For example, do you favor spending more money to keep class sizes low or a longer school year or day? Are there certain areas that should be trimmed financially?

I find it difficult to answer questions like this with so many unknown factors. Thus, my answer is going to be a lot more questions that would be examples of my thought process when reviewing budget priorities. How MUCH money for how small of a class size? Even if I did think a certain amount was worth it, do we have physical space for the extra classes? What are we planning on doing with the longer school day? Is there a way we can decrease the cost by making it for students with some identified need for it and/or whose families want to participate? (I think there should have been more discussion of this concept in connection with the Jefferson-Houston extended day plan.) As a matter of principle, I tend to favor a longer school year. But again, at what budget cost? Will it be money that we have to take away from other programs?

When I approach budget discussions, I will use a few basic principles as my guide: Can we accomplish the same goal in a more efficient way? What are the ways that we can prevent any particular budget priorities from being a “zero sum” game? (This is an especially important concept for Special Ed and TAG priorities.)

Finally, I intend to look with increased skepticism at all outside consultant fees and ask if the service is a priority, can it be had a better price with comparable quality, and can we do it “in-house?"

The next School Board likely will need to address the possibility of boundary adjustments and attendance zone changes. What are your guiding principles regarding economic or racial segregation, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, class and school sizes, busing policies and other considerations?

We need to make every effort to provide families with the certainty of knowing which school their children will be going to if they live at a certain address. Thus, serious consideration needs to be given to changing those lines in a way that would require a family to attend a different school. (This is the “I bought my house in the Maury zone and now you pull the rug out from under my feet” problem.) If we re-draw the zone lines, we will never avoid this situation entirely, but we must pay extra attention to minimizing the disruption to families.

I also believe that families that attend ACPS do so in part because they appreciate the benefit of an ethnically and socio-economically diverse student body. If a school is a good school with great staff and if ACPS can communicate that to parents, then very few families are going to object to being zoned for a school that is ethnically and socio-economically diverse.

As a VERY general rule of thumb, I believe that each elementary school should come close to reflecting City wide percentages of how many children are in each ethnic group.

What role does a School Board member play in helping raise academic achievement for all students and close the achievement gap?

This is a very important role for a Board member. I believe it is a role that can be played both formally and informally by a Board member. The more formal sense is the obvious: Looking for curriculum and teaching method ideas that can help all children reach the potential that really exists inside them. Let’s figure out how ACPS can develop a nimble and individualized approach for each child. As a policy maker, I can be a driving force in that effort.

There is also an equally important informal role for the Board member to play. I will work with the City and its agencies to find ways to improve the out-of-school lives for at risk children. I will work for more cooperative efforts with non-government community organizations, such as ethnic organizations or sports clubs. Youth sports can be such a great way to make kids from at-risk backgrounds more integrated into the community. That will have a secondary effect of bringing their parents closer to the community. That will quickly snowball into helping their academic performance and even helping their parents’ economic prospects.

My informal efforts would not be limited to children in the academically underperforming groups. We can partner with local businesses to work with high school students to get them internships to prepare them for the “real world,” especially those students who might not be immediate college material. Let’s think creatively here. The Board member’s job is not limited by the VA Code’s job description.

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