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Q&A | Meg Bryce and Allison Spillman talk book bans, achievement gaps and school leadership

Allison Spillman and Meg Bryce are battling for a seat on the Albemarle County School Board, a race that has attracted the attention of onlookers across the state and even the nation.

Any person registered to vote in Albemarle County can vote for the at-large seat, which will be one of seven seats on the board, replacing Jonno Alcaro who chose not to run for a third term.

Spillman is a mom of five Albemarle County Public School students and touts her experience as a former business owner and parent-teacher organization member.

Bryce is mom of four and teaches psychology part-time at the University of Virginia. Her three school-age children attend private school after she pulled them from Murray Elementary two years ago. She is also the daughter of late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Both candidates individually sat down with The Daily Progress to discuss their campaigns and policy priorities.

Their interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.

Can you summarize your background for voters?

Spillman: I’m a mom to five public school students, from second grade all the way up to a high school senior. I have a kid with mental health issues that were extremely exacerbated by COVID. I have a neurodivergent child with pretty severe special needs. One of my kids is academically gifted and an athlete. And I have a daughter who’s a proud member of the LGBTQ community. So a lot of varied experiences, which makes me personally invested in our public schools.

I’m a former business owner. We had about 150 employees at one time, so I have a lot of finance and budgeting and process improvement experience, which I think could be an asset to the board. I got involved with our school’s parent-teacher organization when we lived in Arizona. Arizona schools are extremely underfunded, so the PTO is often picking up the slack. Our budget for that was about $350,000, which is huge for a PTO. We funded things like teacher salaries, after-school programs, technology, so a lot of experience with what a successfully run school looks like. Currently I am on the board of a local nonprofit called Reclaimed Hope Initiative, which is helping families navigate foster care, adoption, children with disabilities.

Bryce: I’m a wife, I’m a mom of four. My kids are 11, 9, 6 and 2. I have my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from UVa. So, I’ve studied memory and I’m especially interested in how we learn, how we remember things, which obviously has great implications in the field of education. I teach at UVa in the School of Continuing Professional Studies.

I went to public school K-12. My parents were always big proponents of public school. And that’s what we had planned to do for our kids. We were at Murray Elementary for four years and really loved the school and had just a fantastic experience. I felt my kids were loved and cared for and well educated there. When COVID hit, I became frustrated with the school board being slow to reopen schools. And so I started getting involved in school board meetings, and I just started noticing a pattern of the school board being dismissive of parent concerns. So we pulled our children out of public school.

Why are you running?

Spillman: Because I’m personally invested in our schools and personally invested in making sure that they succeed. I think the stakes are really high. I think that there is a very real threat being waged against our schools and our school boards to whitewash our history and censor our teachers and take away our student’s freedom to learn and our teacher’s freedom to teach. I know that I’m the right person to stand up against that and willing to fight like hell to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

Bryce: Because I think that our school district has lost its focus on the nuts and bolts of providing a good education. And I think it’s because of a failure of leadership.

Our district has declined for the last 10 years. Everybody still thinks that we’re the best district in the region, and we’re just not. Louisa has been outperforming us since 2014, and they spend less per student. So I think that we need somebody in leadership who’s going to look at other counties and say, “All right, what are they doing that we’re not?” Because it’s working better than what we’re doing. Leadership right now is doubling down on policies that have proven to fail students in our district. I think it’s at a crisis level right now.

What do you want to do to close the student achievement gap?

Spillman: Our achievement gap was exacerbated by COVID. But it was definitely something that was there even before COVID. So in order to get the students caught up, I have a few solutions.

One, we need to fully fund our schools, which means as a school board member actually advocating and lobbying our legislators in Richmond to fully fund our schools. It’s not just about what money the Board of Supervisors gives us, but the money that the state is giving us and making sure that we get more. But then also being a good steward of our taxpayer dollars and making sure that our system is running efficiently and effectively and that the maximum amount of resources are being put into the classroom and into our students and into our teachers.

I’m a big proponent of universal pre-K. I think that all kids should show up to kindergarten ready to learn with those social, emotional skills but also those basic learning blocks already in place. We need to put more reading interventionists in K through third, so that by third grade, all kids are reading at grade level. For the kids that are older, we need to be focused on more tutoring, and that includes using the amazing resources in our community, whether it’s 100 Black Men or the Equity Center or all these nonprofits that we’re not utilizing.

Bryce: This board has been completely negligent in addressing the achievement gap. They hired Bellwether to do this instructional audit, and so they like to say they’re taking accountability. They do not. They don’t take accountability for how bad it has gotten. Last year, Black third-graders failed the reading test at a rate of 69%. That’s 22 points below state average. That is a result of their policies.

We need a really hard focus on professional development. Making sure teachers have the training they need to teach their content. Teachers have also said that they need better instructional materials, they need better curriculum, they need a better reading program, which is in the works and that’s a good thing.

But what I think is really, really critical is more reading intervention. I see K through third as a critical period. We know statistically that the kid who gets to fourth grade and isn’t reading fluently is four times as likely to drop out. So when I look at like 69% of Black third-graders and 65% of economically disadvantaged third-graders failing the reading test last year, the snowball effect of that was really terrifying to me that so many of those kids could end up dropping out of school. We need to identify those struggling students early and give them the support that they need. Teachers have been begging for more reading specialists in particular.

Are you open to removing or banning books from schools?

Spillman: Absolutely not. I think we are doing a disservice to our kids if we are removing materials. Our kids’ teachers deserve to see themselves reflected in the materials that we’re teaching and in the books that are in our libraries. I trust our teachers, I trust our librarians to fill our classrooms and fill our libraries with age-appropriate materials, but that means also that the materials reflect our diverse community, and that means that kindergarteners get to read books that have two moms or two dads, because there are families with kindergarteners who have two moms or two dads.

You can always say, “I don’t want my child to read that book.” But you don’t get to ever tell me that my kid can’t read it because you don’t want your kid to.

Bryce: No. We have policies in place for the approval. I think the school board just approved eight new books a month or two ago. I think they have a good policy. There’s also a policy for a parent to object to a book if they want to, and I think that’s a good policy. The example that I like to give is “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. There are rape scenes in there, and it’s pretty difficult stuff. But if you read the whole book, you understand that it’s not this gratuitous scene. It’s not used to glorify rape, it’s used to show the horrors of slavery.

That said, maybe you have a parent whose child is an abuse survivor. That parent might say, “I don’t think that this book should be banned. But could you please assign something different to my child, because this is an especially difficult topic for them.” That’s what the policy allows for, and I think that’s good that the parent can say, “I just don’t want my kid reading this.” And then the parent and the teacher can find an alternative.

What do you want to see happen with teachers’ collective bargaining negotiations?

Spillman: I’m really proud of my endorsement from the Albemarle Education Association because I have been a staunch supporter of collective bargaining. I think that our teachers are our frontline workers. They are with my kids more during the day than I am. They are the experts. And we need to give them a seat at the table and they need to have a voice.

It’s not just about advocating for pay and benefits, although that is very important and our teachers should be paid a living wage. They are the ones that can advocate for what’s working, what’s not, what they need. I think it’s absolutely imperative that we figure out a way to get collective bargaining in Albemarle County.

Bryce: I don’t think that collective bargaining is the best path forward for our district, and I’ve come to that conclusion after talking to many teachers. The number one thing that teachers tell me is that they don’t feel respected, they don’t feel listened to, they don’t feel supported, and those are things that they’re just not confident would be addressed by collective bargaining.

I think the best way to support teachers is to give them the professional development that they’ve been asking for, to give them the classroom support, make sure that we’re fully staffed with reading support specialists and math interventionists and special education aides. And work on teacher raises. The best way to do that is to be responsible with our budget. I think there’s some low-hanging fruit in our budget where we really could make a lot of progress towards giving teachers the raise that they deserve.

Why do you think this race has garnered so much attention, even beyond the county and even beyond the state?

Spillman: Because of the stakes. We’ve seen it in Florida, we’ve seen it in Texas, we’ve seen it in other parts of the state; school boards are the new battleground, and I think that my opponent and I have very different views on the role of public education, and I think that we are both outspoken and fierce and that has kind of brought up that division that we’re seeing in society. I am not backing down. And I think that every kid in our school system deserves the chance to succeed regardless of their past or their path.

Bryce: I think that school board races in general are getting more attention nationwide. Part of that is people wanting to effect change more locally. It used to be that nobody even knew what the school board or what a board of supervisors was, and I think people are paying attention to that more, and that’s good.

Despite my best efforts to stay focused on policy issues and keep this race nonpartisan it has become hyper-political. I think that Spillman has been using that as a strategy to garner more support and to raise fears that I am trying to take over the school board. And I think it’s also a fundraising strategy to draw more attention to a race. And it’s garnered more attention because of my maiden name. And that is also a campaign strategy by my opponent to fearmonger.


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