Three seats on the Charlottesville School Board on the ballot Tuesday and voters will have to decide from a pool of five candidates.
Two incumbents — Lisa Larson-Torres and Leah Puryear — are on the ballot along with three newcomers — Christa Bennett, Emily Dooley and Dom Morse.
This year’s election comes as the Charlottesville school system is seeing a change in leadership with new superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. joining the division in October and longtime board member Juandiego Wade stepping down at the end of the year. The division also is continuing to work through the pandemic’s effects on students, families and staff members and on efforts aimed at creating a more equitable school system.
Seven people serve on the school board for four-year terms. Because the seats are at-large, the top three candidates who receive the most votes will be elected.
All the candidates in the running support Gurley and the general direction of the school system. In a questionnaire ahead of Election Day, candidates detailed their support for the reconfiguration project and the related real estate tax rate increases to pay for it and how they advocate for both.
To read their full responses to all the questions, go to bit.ly/3ByVpKO.
Bennett, the chief operating officer of Strive for College, led the effort to build a playground at Walker Upper Elementary School and has advocated for changes in the School Board wellness policy to end the practice of taking away recess as a punishment. She’s running to make it easier for all parents and guardians to advocate for what their child needs.
Dooley, a real estate agent and former educator, wrote that she would bring a depth of understanding from working in schools that would allow her to quickly start addressing challenges facing the community.
Larson-Torres, who is seeking re-election to a second term, has led the School Board as chairwoman for the last year, a tenure that has included reopening schools, getting reconfiguration off the ground and hiring a superintendent. She wanted to run again to build on the equity efforts started in her first term.
Morse teaches at Community Lab School, which is the charter school in Albemarle County. He’s pointed to that experience as well as his time as a student in the city school division as to why he should be elected. As a student, he said he had firsthand experience with the inequities discussed at School Board meetings and eventually left to earn his GED. He’s running to build a school system that works for every student.
Longtime board member Leah Puryear is seeking a fifth term because she wanted to continue to serve the community and provide institutional knowledge during a time of leadership transitions. Priorities in another term include continuing the work of the preschool program and the changes to the gifted program and building a strong support system for stakeholders, students and families.
All of the five candidates except Puryear unequivocally supported collective bargaining for school employees, saying it would help boost pay, provide an opportunity to hear from staff members, result in better working conditions for staff and improve the student experience
“Many of our employees are currently members of the VEA, which we have historically had a successful partnership,” Puryear wrote in the questionnaire. “In addition, they work with employee relation issues and have a presence on the division’s equity council. I look forward to continuing that relationship and future collaborations.”
A new state law that went into effect May 1 lifted the ban on collective bargaining for some public-sector employees that’s been in place since 1977. Local teachers and school employees can start negotiating a contract after the School Board votes to authorize such talks.
The board has not publicly discussed collective bargaining in the last year.
Discussions about equity have taken on heighten importance in recent years following the publication of the 2018 New York Times/Propublica article that highlighted achievement gaps in the school system. Since then, the division has hired a supervisor of equity, overhauled its gifted education program and worked to implement a new equity policy.
“It is critically important that CCS does not lose sight of what the NYT article reported,” Larson-Torres wrote. “Every student should receive the support and instruction that they need to thrive and be successful. CCS can continue this work by removing barriers to access and truly meeting and seeing each student where he or she is.”
She added that in a potential second term, she would prioritize the identification and removal of barriers to achievement and opportunity and advocate for excellent literacy instruction as well as supporting a budget that prioritizes instruction and programs that benefit our students equitably.
Bennett said that she would want to know what equity means to people of color and how she can support the work they are already doing to achieve it.
She has said that she will hold regular listening sessions to hear from the community about the schools. Investing in preschool also is a priority for Bennett. To address the achievement gaps among different student groups, she said she would support culturally relevant teaching and expand more academic counseling starting in sixth grade.
“Many students do not have sufficient information about what classes they need to take in high school if they want to go to college, especially a more selective college,” she wrote. “This counseling needs to begin in sixth grade because students can take some high school credit courses in seventh and eighth grade.”
Dooley wrote that if elected, she would want to reduce the focus on “high-stakes testing” and ensure students have access to instruction that promotes problem-solving, critical thinking, and real-world connections.
“I believe that equity in the school division would look like all students having access to exceptional instruction that provides a variety of options for learning and displaying mastery of learning,” Dooley wrote, adding that an equitable school system would expand learning opportunities for its youngest learners.
Morse, who has made his experience as a student in Charlottesville a focal point in his campaign, said that the School Board has to focus on systemic inequities “that limit and often erase the learning opportunities for students of color and kids who are economically disadvantaged.” One example of this would be providing free meals to students and improving the quality of food served.
To address the achievement gaps, he wants to partner with community organizations to support families before they even get to school.
Puryear wrote that the equity efforts have led to the hiring of a more inclusive workforce and that she wants to focus on the retention portion.
“We must recognize that all of us learn and develop at different rates, which means we all achieve at different rates as well,” she wrote. “I will continue to assess the efficiencies of our intervention programs and best practices, to include standardized tests and student assessments.”