The three candidates hoping to fill the Samuel Miller District seat on the Albemarle County School Board squared off Tuesday at Murray Elementary School to debate numerous issues central to Albemarle’s public schools.
The seat — vacated by Eric Strucko, and filled in the interim by former board member Jon Stokes — will be filled through a special election Nov. 3. The winner will serve the remainder of Strucko’s term, which expires Dec. 31, 2017.
Tuesday’s forum was the second of three co-hosted by Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress.
“I want to make sure that the high-quality education our students get continues,” said Brian Vanyo, who works for the Defense Intelligence Agency and has two children in Albemarle County Public Schools. “Quality schools attract great families and great businesses.”
Currently, the School Board is anticipating a $6.4 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year. Graham Paige, who taught in Albemarle’s schools for 25 years, said the public should know what created the recent budget challenges.
“A lot of the things that led to that came from the state level, not the county level,” Paige said, citing an approximately $600 decline in state per pupil spending since 2008.
Paige, however, disagreed with Mike Basile, who formerly led the Jefferson Area Tea Party and said he would look for school programs to cut instead of raising taxes.
Vanyo pointed to rising healthcare costs and decreased state revenues, but warned against depending on the Board of Supervisors to fill the gap each year. As a result, Vanyo said he would scrutinize all of the school division’s programs.
On the heels of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Monday visit to Agnor-Hurt Elementary School to discuss Standards of Learning reform, Paige criticized the current role standardized testing plays in Albemarle’s schools.
“The SOLs really don’t evaluate what’s been taught in the classrooms,” Paige said.
Both Vanyo and Basile agreed.
“The teachers don’t like having to teach to the test, and the parents don’t like the teachers teaching to the test and taking away from their kids’ education,” Basile said.
Other questions related to curriculum addressed expanding Albemarle’s elementary world language program and the current state of early childhood education, in which the School Board focuses on K-12, while local government provides oversight and the majority of funding for preschool.
“The desire to have more pre-K programs in our schools is very strong,” Basile said. “We’ve got to focus attention and resources in this area, because these kids are at-risk.”
Paige agreed, but argued for universal pre-K, rather than relying on federal programs such as Head Start and Title I, which Paige said local schools don’t have as much control over.
Vanyo said he supports the current division of services, but said he wouldn’t support pre-K expansion.
“I would support expanded pre-K if we found that the results lead to lasting educational impacts, but it does not,” Vanyo said, citing the National Head Start Impact Study. “I’m open to change if we see studies that show otherwise.”
With respect to elementary world languages, Paige and Vanyo would support expansion, while Basile said those resources could be allocated elsewhere.
Facing overcrowding at some of the schools in the northern urban ring, Paige, who serves on the Redistricting Advisory Committee, said pursing a redistricting that sees some of Albemarle High School’s students moved to Monticello High seems likely.
“Always the priority is to use existing seats rather than building new facilities,” Paige said.
Basile agreed, praising the Redistricting Advisory Committee’s suggestion to temporarily house some Greer Elementary students at neighboring Jack Jouett Middle next year.
“It’s going to help us save money and save seats in our school system,” Basile said.
Vanyo also noted the need to provide relief for Albemarle High, as well as the existing capacity at Monticello High, but said he wouldn’t advocate building a new school at this time.
Candidates for the White Hall District seat on the School Board are set to debate at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at Henley Middle School.