Candidates seeking a spot on the Charlottesville School Board were supportive of the planned reconfiguration project that’s in the works, the new superintendent Royal Gurley Jr., boosting teachers’ pay and the division’s efforts to improve equity during a forum Thursday night.
Hosted by the Black Parents Association and CCS Joint PTO, the forum is the only one scheduled before Election Day. During the virtual forum, the five candidates made their cases for why voters should elect them to one of the three at-large seats on the ballot.
The candidates running for School Board are Christa Bennett, chief operating officer of Strive for College; real estate agent Emily Dooley; board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres; Albemarle County educator Dom Morse; and longtime board member Leah Puryear. Juandiego Wade’s term also is expiring this year, but he opted to run for the City Council instead of seeking re-election to the School Board.
Each candidate had two minutes to respond to the questions, which touched on equity and how to measure success, supporting the LGBTQIA+ community, lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff shortages, teacher retention, budgetary decisions and social-emotional learning.
The entire forum is available online at facebook.com/CCSJointPTO or www.ccsptofund.org.
Daniel Fairley, the city’s youth opportunity coordinator, moderated the forum.
Candidates highlighted their different experiences and how that would help on the board, but they largely had similar stances to the several issues facing the school system.
For example, all agreed that the reconfiguration project is necessary and said that the School Board needs to make sure the project continues to move forward. What exactly that would be like was unclear.
“If we are required to raise real estate taxes, we will have education sessions, explaining to everyone what that means,” Puryear said. “And at the end of the day, we will have to build stellar buildings to represent the stellar education that all of our children receive and deserve.”
City budget officials have said a 10-cent increase to the real estate tax rate would be needed to pay for the first phase of reconfiguration, estimated to cost $75 million, as well as other projects in the five-year capital improvement program.
The School Board has been discussing versions of the reconfiguration project for a decade. The current plan includes moving sixth grade to Buford Middle School, sending fifth grade back to the elementaries and consolidating preschool at Walker Upper Elementary School, which currently houses fifth and sixth grade.
The $75 million doesn’t include the construction of an early childhood center at Walker, which is estimated to cost $22.4 million. Getting that second phase funded and completed also was a priority for several candidates, including Dooley and Bennett.
“Like I said, preschool is a priority for me, I don’t want us to pay for Buford, and then have those preschool students in Walker and temporary facilities just sort of indefinitely,” Bennett said.
Several candidates said renovating Buford wasn’t enough and that the division should use this project as a chance to rethink what happens inside the classrooms.
Morse, who teaches at the Community Lab School in Albemarle, wants to see opportunities for students to explore their interests, passions and values in the middle school curriculum as well as more project-based learning. The Community Lab School is a charter school that’s defined by a project-based and student-centered approach.
“It’s just important for us to not forget that with the new building — of which I am strongly for — that we also think about how to solve some of the academic issues for our students,” he said. “I know that there are a lot of community members that are for reconfiguration, including myself, but we also know that our challenge is to educate our students in our city, to make sure that we have strong leaders for the future that can advocate for themselves, advocate for their families, and create a strong community for us as a whole.”
Dooley, a former teacher and school principal whose husband currently teaches at Buford, said she was uniquely positioned to advocate for the importance of the investment.
“I believe strongly that the quality of our schools matters, regardless of whether you have a student enrolled or not,” she said. “… Our community is built on the value of education and our public schools should reflect that.”
Similar to Morse, she said that a new building wouldn’t improve student outcomes on its own.
“I continue to believe that improving the rigor and instruction that’s available to all students is the key to gains and achievement,” she said. “That said, this new building allows for this type of instruction to readily occur.”
Bennett pointed to work in leading the effort to build a playground at Walker Upper Elementary as evidence of her ability to get projects done. The playground, which was requested by students, opened before this school year began following a years-long campaign to raise more than $134,000 for the structure.
She said she would be that experience of organizing and working with the people in the community to the School Board.
“I am able to leverage community resources for everyone in that community,” she said. “… So I had experience doing this, and like some of the other folks have said reconfiguration cannot be our only answer to equity and a better experience for middle schools. We have to continue talking with our community about what our middle schoolers need.”
Bennett also said that the School Board needs to lobby for an expansion of the tax relief program if the real estate tax rate increases.
Larson-Torres pointed to the work she has done thus far to move the project forward, including serving on the working group and design team.
“It’s really exciting that we’ve gotten to this point, and we need to keep the momentum going and I think I have proven leadership in doing that,” she said.
Larson-Torres added that she’s already reached out to state lawmakers other funding options and is talking with parents and community groups that are looking for private sources to help pay for the project.
“ … Our kids deserve this,” she said. “These new buildings will create the space and the opportunity for some of those wonderful instructional ideas that Mr. Morse has. We’re going to have better air quality, better health, and a better instructional environment for our kids and they deserve that.”
Early voting is currently underway, and Election Day is Nov. 2.