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Tip O’Neill is still right!

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( – promoted by lowkell)

Yesterday, my Facebook status ran: If you want a potent reminder about how all politics is local, just get involved in your local school board race.

That is more true than ever this morning.

School board races are, to my mind, the most overlooked political races on the election calendar, but often the most contentious, the most personal, and the most intense.  Here in Fairfax County, we don’t have primaries to get party endorsement, preferring the  facade that school board races are “non-partisan.”  What this really means is that only a handful of people are deciding who gets the resources and backing from each party, which is pretty undemocratic if you ask me.

School board races are personal because they impact two of the most important things in our lives — they are about our children, who will spend large parts of their lives under the care of and living out the educational philosophies of those whom we elected and those subsequently hired.  There is no issue too small for parents to care about, and boy, we do!  And they are also about our local economics and stabilizing housing prices, which are most people’s most reliable asset for building wealth.  Fairfax’s reputation for excellent schools is a huge draw for families looking for a place to buy a home and spend their money locally for many years.  (I moved into Fairfax County because I wanted my son to attend Robinson Secondary not only for it’s great academic reputation, but also its theatre program.)  Anything that we feel diminishes our schools has the potential to hurt our children and our financial bottom line.  That’s pretty powerful stuff!

So there the Democrats of Fairfax County are last night, meeting to endorse.  We have six candidates for three At-Large slots.  (Each magisterial district also chooses a candidate to endorse.)  Although most of the candidates share a lot of common ground, each one brings to the table a slightly different personality and set of priorities, and each one had strong support from within the membership and there was a lot of chatter and lobbying about whom we supported and why.  Phones have rung off the hook for weeks, and mailboxes have had plenty in them.  Emails and Facebook…you get the idea.  So by the time most people arrived, many of us had strong opinions about whom we supported.  My own personal bias is that I’m a parent advocate — I want parents to have more say, and candidates who spoke to that were my strongest choices.  Another voter, even a Democrat, may have other preferences.  It’s hard to say what is a “Democratic” position on things ranging from bus routes to grading, to discipline to school start times.  But believe me, parents all have opinions (understatement) and this is perhaps the most activist parents have been in at least recent memory.  Meetings that once drew a handful of spectators are often spilling into hallways.  Perhaps because of this, we are seeing record turn over of the school board this fall.  But there is no getting around that this election REALLY matters.  It is likely to bring voters out who may not be as interested in the state and local elections, but voters who care passionately about schools.

We took the vote, and only one candidate, Illyong Moon of Braddock district, received a majority.  Mr. Moon is a well liked Democrat who has been serving on the school board for several terms, and the only at-large candidate running for re-election.  The overall mood upon hearing this was very positive.  Another candidate, Maria Allen, did not receive sufficient support to move to the second ballot.  So then there were four.

Then things broke down.  According to the rules, only one more vote was to be taken.  Given how high support ran for each of the four candidates, the mathematical likelihood of only a second vote became unrealistic.  Here we were, in one of the biggest elections for school board we’ve ever had, and we’re using rules created back when it was pretty much a sleepy, rather forgotten race while we focused our attention on Supervisor, Delegate and Senator races.

Needless to say, process failed us.  In the end, a vote was called to simply endorse the top two vote getters, which may have been a pragmatic solution, but one that left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.  Not only was the decision to endorse made ad hoc, it was made after many people could no longer stay. On a second  personal note, I’ll also add that once I knew there would be no third vote, I left.  After all, I’m a PARENT — and my child had SOL’s (and we all know how much I love testing based education…) in the morning and it was already 10:00 at night.  So for all of the talk about how important parents are to the process, and how much we admire and need them, it’s hard not to feel that out of all the demographics, we were put at a disadvantage by the process.  

So instead of introducing you today  to our three candidates: Ted Velkoff, Charisse Epsy Glassman and Illyong Moon; instead of telling you why they deserve our support and trying to get everyone fired up to support them (which I will do in future diaries) I’m sitting here this morning frustrated by a process that felt pretty undemocratic to me.  I have no issue with the candidates themselves, and doubt that many in the party overall do, but the truth of the matter is that we CAN and SHOULD do better.

Meanwhile, of course, there is little else to do but pick ourselves up and keep fighting for the issues that matter.  There are still elections this November!