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Two candidates seeking Samuel Miller seat on School Board

Voters in the Samuel Miller district of Albemarle County will decide Tuesday who will represent them on the School Board.

Graham Paige, who has represented the area since 2015, is technically uncontested on the ballot for the seat; however, Randy Zackrisson jumped into the race in August to win the seat via write-in votes. Zackrisson has lived in the area for 40 years and his now-adult children attended the county schools. Some of his grandchildren are currently in the school system.

Paige said that if elected, he’ll focus on continuing to move the division forward. Zackrisson’s campaign is largely focused on ensuring parents have a say in their child’s education and shaking up the School Board.

The Samuel Miller seat is one of three School Board spots on the ballot this election cycle. School board terms last four years. Seven people make up the county School Board.

The Albemarle County Electoral Board will decide which write-in votes count and will aim to honor the intention of the voter, Secretary James Heilman said. The board discussed the write-in votes at a meeting earlier this week and decided that just “Randy” likely won’t be accepted or his initials “RZ.” Voters should attempt to spell his last name for it to count.

“There’s no way to crystal ball all the kinds of misspellings people will make,” Heilman said, adding that the board reserves the right to change its mind.

Zackrisson said the board’s top priority should be ensuring students make up learning lost during the pandemic. For example, the division should use its federal stimulus money to hire more teachers and give every student a tutor.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think the right questions are being asked, and to get there, I think you need to get parents involved,” he said.

The school division received $11.4 million in the latest round of stimulus funding, and earmarked $10.7 million for learning loss recovery and addressing students’ mental health needs. That includes virtual learning, hiring 28 teachers to reduce class sizes and adding more mental health professionals to support students.

Paige, an Esmont native and former teacher, said that he’s seeking a second full term on the board to continue moving the school division forward from the implementation of the anti-racism policy that was adopted in 2019 to building out career pathways for high school students. If elected, Paige said he would continue to champion the accomplishments that the school division has taken pride in recently such as that anti-racism policy.

“I think I’d be the person who would be best able to keep those things moving forward within the county,” he said. “We can’t lose any ground that we have made.”

He also wants to address overcrowding in the schools, establish a foundation to fund items not covered in the budget and ensure the division is identifying and working to address skills that students lost during the pandemic.

“We have to make sure that we realize that Albemarle County Public Schools should be inviting to all of our students, that nobody should be feeling left out, or feel threatened or not welcomed in some type of way,” he said.

During Paige’s latest term, the board banned Confederate imagery from the division’s dress code, removed armed police officers from the buildings, supported an expansion of the culturally responsive teaching program and raised the minimum wage for all employees to $15 an hour, among other changes.

“It’s really meant a lot to be part of that because we want to make sure that our schools do the best possible job for all of our students,” he said. “Even though we realized that there’s still work to be done, like closing the achievement gap within the county. We have made a whole lot of progress. But we realize that we still have a lot of things to do, and I’m proud of what we have done so far.”

More recently, as chairman, Paige led the board through the pandemic and reopening schools. Over the summer, the board unanimously adopted a policy aimed at protecting and supporting transgender and gender-expansive students, which some group of parents and community members took issue with.

“The kids that the policy protects would be the ones that would be most likely to attempt suicide or to have extreme cases of depression,” he said. “We can’t let those kids be lost either.”

For Zackrisson, the policy is an example of the School Board not listening to parents or respecting their input. He said the board should’ve had at least a forum with parents about the policy before voting.

The school division did hold an online information session about the policy but did not take questions or otherwise engage with attendees.

“I think I largely agree with what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “… It’s the way they are implementing it that’s so divisive, but the goals are good.”

Regarding the policy for transgender students, Zackrisson said he wanted to know what problem it was trying to solve, adding tha

“If the problem that we’re solving is bullying, I thought we had a bullying policy,” he said.

The policy was required as part of a new state law and was adopted in part to provide guidance to school administrators as they support students who want to transition and ensure those students don’t experience discrimination while at school.

According to a 2017 study by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 84% of transgender students say they have been bullied and harassed at school. The Trevor Project’s 2021 national survey found that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

Zackrisson said he didn’t think a “one-size fits all” policy was the best answer to address the issue and that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible in the school system.

“When you have to tell other kids how to handle these kids, that’s none of their business,” he said. “That’s really in between the school, the parents and the child.”

At his campaign kickoff in August, he said only reasonable policy changes should be debated. In an interview last week, he didn’t specify what reasonable entails.

“It’s not my job to determine what’s reasonable; it really isn’t,” he said. “But I think the parents should be involved in what’s reasonable.”

Zackrisson’s platform is focused on parental rights, “back-to-basics” education and deliberative decision making. Back-to-basics means a classical k-12 education, he said, though he didn’t expand on exactly what that means.

Parental rights does not mean parents get to review individual lesson plans and take out what they don’t like, he said.

“That’s anarchy,” he said, adding that they should have some input.

In interviews and campaign materials leading up to the election, Zackrisson has said there’s a crisis in the county schools and that students are experiencing a “downward spiral” in mastery of basic skills, citing third-grade test scores. Zackrisson’s Facebook post says 54.8% of students passed the reading; state data shows that 70% did. He’s also criticized the changes to grading and perceived lower standards in the school system as well as the push to rename schools.

“Kids aren’t getting $14,000 worth of education,” he said in an interview, referring to the amount of money the division spends per student.

The division in recent years has rolled out a number of changes to provide more consistency across the different schools and to tackle systemic issues that officials say are behind the system’s persistent achievement gaps.

If elected, Zackrisson said he would ask questions that he says aren’t being asked and advocate for parents “that they’re not letting talk.”

“I’m diversity,” he said. “… I can’t make much of an impact because I’m only one among seven. So I mean it’s not like I’m gonna swing this thing radically one way or another.”


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