The School Board race in Albemarle County’s Rio District has turned out to be one of the most competitive contests in this year’s local elections.
The candidates seeking to represent the district on the School Board are Katrina Callsen, a University of Virginia School of Law graduate and a former Teach for America corps member; and Mary McIntyre, a teacher who left her part-time position at Agnor-Hurt Elementary this year while launching her campaign for School Board.
Pam Moynihan, currently finishing her fourth term as the Rio representative, is not running for re-election.
Callsen and McIntyre have devoted themselves to their campaign full-time for much of this year, and go canvassing door-to-door in their district almost every day.
Callsen said her decision to run for School Board is rooted in her childhood in a low-income household, with parents who had dropped out of high school.
“I saw my parents struggle with the consequences of that,” said Callsen, who graduated from Yale University in 2008. “I want to make sure all of our students have clear pathways to success.”
At UVa’s law school, Callsen helped to provide legal representation to low-income children in Virginia through the school’s Child Advocacy Clinic.
McIntyre holds M.Ed. degrees in music and literacy education from the University of Michigan and the University of Hawaii, respectively. She has taught in multiple U.S. school districts and at a Department of Defense school in Germany during her husband’s service in the Air Force.
McIntyre said she sees a need for more professional educators to serve on the board. Graham Paige, a retired high school science teacher, is the only career educator on the current board.
“Across the country, you have leaders who are coming to education issues with an outside perspective,” she said. “Maybe that’s how our nation’s schools have gotten to where they are.”
McIntyre’s son and daughter attend Woodbrook Elementary. Callsen expects her older son to start kindergarten at Agnor-Hurt next year.
Both candidates said it has been challenging for them to differentiate themselves from each other. While Virginia school board races are non-partisan, Callsen and McIntyre both identify as Democrats.
The Albemarle County Democratic Committee chose to endorse both candidates, and gave $500 each to their respective campaigns.
Mary McIntyre met Elaine Muntner while canvassing in the Branchlands retirement community.
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Callsen and McIntyre’s campaigns each have raised an extraordinary amount of money for an Albemarle School Board race. Callsen raised $20,274 as of Sept. 30, while McIntyre raised $13,391.41.
In 2015, School Board member David Oberg spent just $3,764.83 to defeat C.J. Hatcher in that year’s White Hall District race.
Callsen’s campaign has received $7,000 from Leadership for Educational Equity, a foundation spun off from Teach for America that supports TFA alumni running for public office or seeking other leadership roles.
California investor Arthur Rock — a board member at the LEE Foundation and a “lifetime director” at TFA — made a personal donation of $1,000.
Critics of TFA say the organization uses LEE to push for the privatization of public schooling through charter management organizations.
Callsen said LEE has not pressured her to pursue any specific policy agenda beyond the elimination of inequity in public schooling. “They want your campaign to be about what you believe in,” she said.
LEE representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Callsen has publicly criticized the methods of the KIPP charter school in Massachusetts where she was placed for TFA, saying that the school’s teachers rapidly burn out from the demands of the job.
“That charter school model is unsustainable, especially for teachers,” she said. “I’m not in favor of privatizing public education. I have seen the pitfalls of that.”
McIntyre’s campaign has received $5,000 from Ted Dintersmith, a nationally recognized education philanthropist and a part-time resident of Albemarle County.
Dintersmith produced the 2015 documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which advocates for cutting back standardized testing and implementing innovative, project-based curricula in mainstream public schools.
McIntyre said Dintersmith disagrees with TFA’s placement of inexperienced teachers in struggling school districts.
While donors to Callsen and McIntyre’s campaigns represent opposing sides of a national debate over TFA and charter schools, McIntyre said these issues are not relevant to Albemarle’s School Board elections.
McIntyre was endorsed by the Albemarle Political Action for Children and Education, the political arm of the Albemarle Education Association.
The AEA is a voluntary professional organization for county educators and school employees. In a news release, AEA President Cheryl Knight cited McIntyre’s teaching experience in Albemarle as a reason for the group’s endorsement.
Callsen received an endorsement and a $1,000 donation from ASCEND PAC, a national political action committee that identifies and supports emerging Democrats running for local office.
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Callsen and McIntyre said they have learned much about the education issues that matter most to Rio District residents in conversations with hundreds of voters this year.
Callsen said many people are eager to know how the county plans to accommodate growing enrollment at its high schools, particularly at Albemarle High.
“There is a general awareness that a new high school might be coming in the future,” she said.
Callsen and McIntyre said they also have heard complaints about potential school redistricting, inadequate compensation for teachers, and multiage classes being implemented at Agnor-Hurt and Woodbrook elementary schools. However, they agreed that residents are generally satisfied with their public schools.
Pam Moynihan, Rio District representative on the School Board since 2002, is not seeking reelection.
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Moynihan, the outgoing Rio District representative on the board, said Albemarle has become “a completely different place” since she joined the board in 2002. She said rising numbers of low-income students and English language learners in the county’s urban ring schools have necessitated significant changes in the division’s educational programming.
However, Moynihan said some issues — such as overcrowding and redistricting — have been a constant presence during her tenure on the board. The county’s total K-12 enrollment has grown by more than 1,600 students since she was first elected.
Moynihan said her successor on the School Board should approach their new responsibilities with “big ears open, and big mouth shut.”
“The most important thing is to not go in with guns blazing, thinking you are going to change the world,” she said. “That’s not how things work.”
Election Day is Nov. 7.