Yesterday, I had the chance to sit down with Arlington County School Board Democratic candidate Nancy Van Doren for an interview. The School Board election is coming up soon (May 15 and 17), so if you live in Arlington, it’s time to start focusing on this race. I’ve already interviewed the other two Democrats in this race – Greg Greeley and Barbara Kanninen, so check those out as well. For now, here’s a summary of my hour-long talk with Nancy Van Doren.
1. Why did you decide to run for Arlington County School Board, and why now?
Van Doren: She’s worked with the school system for 10 years, has four kids who have been going through the school system, has been spending “more and more time at the policy level advising,” and “it just seems like a natural extension of what I’ve been doing.” In addition, “there are many projects I’ve been working on that I’d like to see come to fruition, and I think that would best be done at the Board level.” As for why she’s running now, it’s a combination of the fact that there will soon be a vacancy, and also that her kids are older and are “much more self sufficient” so she has the time to do it now.
2. Do you see the School Board as a full-time or part-time job?
Van Doren: “It will be what I do…I think you have to be [on call]…as an elected official.”
3. What are some of the major issues facing the school system right now?
Van Doren: The main issue is “continuing to maintain our focus on really high-quality education and providing that to all the students in the school system. So, closing the achievement gap…that’s a very high priority…there are discrepancies between groups that we need to work on.” “Reading is my top top issue; I think kids have got to enter fourth grade reading at grade level, and that’s my #1 priority.” “Whether we like it or not, we also have to deal with the capacity issue…with 700 new kids a year, we have to do both of those things, but I don’t think you can lose sight of the instruction at the same time you’re working on getting kids in seats…We really have to be creative about how we’re using our existing facilities.” We’re also going to have to build new buildings, “but we don’t have enough money…APS is being very deliberate about how far we want to go in building.” “For a long time, APS’ projections only went out 5 years, and now they’re going out further. The next step is to really couple that with the county’s plans for development…that just has to happen…to have the county and the school system basically dovetail their plans.” We really didn’t see the enrollment surge coming because our planning was so short term, so “we need a 20-30 plan…so that we don’t get back in that situation.”
4. Do you see the school budget increasing, staying the same or shrinking as a percent of the county budget?
Van Doren: “I would presume it would be relatively stable…the issue’s going to be what it’s going to take to meet capital needs.” The County Board has had a priority on the school; “we’ve basically gotten what we needed.” “Arlingtonians are incredible in their vision that they know it’s good to invest in schools. I mean it’s really impressive. You take a county that’s 85% people who don’t have kids in the school system and you put almost half the money into the schools, that’s phenomenal…We have to be really good stewards of that money…My background is in business, and I think there are ways we can be a bit more efficient and targeted in our spending.” But, having said that, “you need to compensate your people fairly.”
5. Is it important for Arlington public school teachers and other employees to live in Arlington?
Van Doren: “I think it’s really helpful…we should encourage teachers to live in Arlington and help them to do so…It’s expensive to live here.”
6. Where would you find economies in the school system if you need to due to economic and/or budgetary realities?
Van Doren: There will be some “economies of scale that kick in” with the growing student population. “The transportation system can be much more efficient; buses are operating at 32% capacity…We can make some efficiencies there…that’s an opportunity for saving some money.” Also, high-quality early education saves money in the long run.
7. Do you agree with building our schools and retrofitting existing schools for energy efficiency?
Van Doren: Strongly supports building schools in an energy efficient manner, in part because it saves money in the long run. It’s also healthier for the students and people who work in the buildings.
8. How important is having diversity on the Arlington County School Board?
Van Doren: “I have a whole background in this from working in Hartford, which is a very diverse community, so it’s a conversation I’m very comfortable with. I think that qualifications and experience are the most important things to look at when you’re deciding on somebody to serve on the School Board…your sensitivities and your understanding of the needs of the community are extremely important…I don’t think you necessarily have to be a particular color or a particular economic class to represent or be able to understand the needs of that community…I have experience working with families in every corner of this county, from every economic level, from every socioeconomic, racial, cultural background…Then I have the sensitivity to represent them on the Board…The whole north-south discussion, I think it’s more useful to talk about what the needs are of each of those schools and communities, and then focus on serving those needs and being equitable about it…You have to have the experience of working with those different groups so you can well represent them when you’re on the board…I want to be the voice of parents and teachers and students on the Board…I’m passionate about that.” There shouldn’t be any litmus tests for being on the School Board, such as having kids in the school system; everyone has a different life journey, and that’s a good thing. “I prefer to look at the qualifications and the experience…and does the person really have the understanding of the job that has to be done…and of the community they’re going to be representing.”
9. Why should people vote for you instead of your opponents?
Van Doren: “When I have to answer that question in one sentence, it’s about experience…as well as the understanding of all of Arlington and the needs of families across the county, as well as the experience I have working with teachers and families…That is what differentiates us. The other two candidates do not have the experience I have, the track record of taking on projects and getting them done…And I’ve done it in multiple areas – facilities, instruction, serving students with special needs, transportation.” “Taking those [challenges] on, talking to the community, figuring out what has to get done, and doing it. That is what is my hallmark.” All three School Board candidates are “very well educated, smart, kind people. It all comes down to experience.” “I have a really keen focus on serving every student from every background. I speak Spanish so I understand second-language learners. I’ve lived in Central America, I understand the people who are immigrants to this community. I also have a really strong understanding of students with special needs and disabilities…how you differentiate instruction; I have a very strong focus on that…In this community, [closing the achievement gap] is all about will…we have the resources and we have the talent…That vision that I have of our ability to do it and supporting the teachers to getting that done; I think that may be a differentiatior, in that I can see clearly what I think needs to be done. I have that vision and a passion to get it done, and the…hands-on experience to know that these are the needs and this is what has to be addressed to close the achievement gap.”
10. Who are your core supporters and what’s your plan to win this race?
“I really have a very broad base of support from a variety of different areas, really from across the county – north north Arlington, south south Arlington, central Arlington…That has to do with the work that I’ve done and the experience that I have. For instance, I helped set up the Arlington Latino Network, and I speak Spanish, and I needed to work and bring in Latino families into the Jefferson community in order to get that school renovated. So that is a group of people I know very very well…When I worked on transportation, I got to know the families who were adamant that we fix the transportation system, and they are across the county…I have spent all of my time working with the disability community…I have kids who are gifted, I understand that group. I can’t stress strongly enough how broad-based it is…I have the most amazing support group of people who are working with me [on this campaign]…I think there is a groundswell of support for my candidacy because of my broad-based understanding of the community and the numbers of different people and groups who I connected; I feel that, it’s palpable.”