Two candidates for Albemarle County School Board took shots against their opponents at a Wednesday forum. It helped that neither of those opponents showed up.
Rebecca Berlin and Allison Spillman took questions from a crowd of roughly 30 people gathered at Westminster Canterbury of the Blue Ridge on Pantops at the forum hosted by the Senior Statesmen of Virginia forum.
The pair found themselves in agreement throughout the hourlong event. Their more conservative opponents may have done the same, but they declined the invitation.
Meg Bryce is running against Spillman for the at-large seat on the board. Bryce is a part-time University of Virginia psychology professor and daughter of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who sends her children to private school, while Spillman is a former parent teacher organization leader with five children in Albemarle public schools.
Joann McDermid is contesting the White Hall District seat, which Berlin has held since since 2022 when she was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Dave Oberg. McDermid is an Canadian-born independent research and academic consultant, while Berlin is the former chief learning officer at Start Early, a nonprofit public-private partnership advancing early learning and care for families with children.
It is not clear why Bryce and McDermid chose not to attend, neither provided an explanation.
With neither of their rivals present, Berlin and Spillman cast them both as members of the "radical right."
A very real threat is being waged against public schools, Spillman said.
“My opponent is one of those people that’s threatening our safety and our freedoms. They’re looking to ban books and whitewash history. And our families and our teachers deserve somebody that’s willing to stand up against that,” she said.
Berlin claimed that she put her name forward to join the school board after watching races in Loudon and Spotsylvania counties.
“Radical right conservatives took over both of those school boards and really turned those towns upside down,” Berlin said. “They limited the books that children were able to read.”
On Monday, all four candidates spoke at a Crozet Town Hall. Berlin and Spillman hugged afterwards, as did Bryce and McDermid.
Two days later, the two progressive candidates remained friendly, often commending each other and aligning on most issues. The pair took a number of questions from the older audience in attendance.
Berlin frequently emphasized the importance of students’ mental and emotional well-being. To solve the issue of chronic absenteeism, Berlin said that schools must address mental health.
“Having students feel safe and having a counselor and administrator that supports them and understands them is the first line of defense against chronic absenteeism,” Berlin said.
Multiple times throughout the event, Spillman noted that while her five children attend Albemarle County Public Schools, Bryce’s children do not.
“I think it’s really important that we understand the value of public education in society and have somebody that’s willing to fight to maintain it, and not put our kids in private school like my opponent does,” Spillman said.
One woman in the audience asked what the county can do to receive more public school funding from the state. Spillman offered a suggestion while also taking a dig at her opponent.
“Electing officials on the school board who are not in favor of diverting funds to private school vouchers. My opponent is in favor of doing that,” she said.
Diverting money sets a “dangerous precedent” because the county does not get a lot of money from Richmond, Spillman argued, so what money it does receive must be spent wisely.
“Taking that money away and putting it so that you can send your kids to private school like she does is not being a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” Spillman said. “So for me personally, it’s electing people that are committed to our public education system that do not have an ulterior motive, and then really advocating to your legislators that they need to be fighting to fully fund our schools.”
Spillman took an opportunity to draw another contrast between her and her opponent when an audience member asked how the county can retain bus drivers and teachers. Spillman and Berlin are both in favor of collective bargaining for teachers.
Bus drivers, teachers and school staff deserve to be paid a living wage, Spillman argued.
“It’s really hard to attract teachers when we’re not paying them. They’re getting master’s degrees, and they can make more money doing something way less stressful,” Spillman said.
Teachers, she said, need professional development to help them grow in their careers.
“They want to learn more. They want to be constantly learning for their kids. And all of that can be found with a collective bargaining agreement,” Spillman said.
Perhaps both Bryce and McDermid would have liked to defend themselves from the attacks, but conservative candidates sometimes choose not to attend Senior Statesmen Forums.
Madison Cummings served on the organization’s board in the past.
“We found it very, very frustrating when we would ask Rob Bell, Matt Fariss and others on the Republican side, usually, who would turn us down when we asked them to come here,” Cummings told The Daily Progress after the substantive but subdued event, adding that Senior Statesmen is a nonpartisan organization.
“I just don’t get when you’re afraid that your point of view and principles are so narrow that you’re unwilling to come share them,” Cummings, who readily identified as a Democrat, said.