The four newcomers and two incumbents seeking one of four open spots on the Albemarle County School Board envision a more welcoming environment at meetings.
The six candidates discussed their qualifications for office, how to improve the climate at board meetings and parent involvement in schools during an hour-long forum last week.
The board is made up of a representative from each of the county’s six magisterial districts and one at-large member, all serving four-year terms. School board elections in Virginia are nonpartisan.
At least two seats on the seven-member board will be filled by newcomers because of retirements.
Board Chairman Jonno Alcaro, a finance professional who is seeking a second term as the board’s at-large member, is facing a challenge from Anne Elizabeth Oliver, a real estate agent.
Two of the candidates — David Oberg and Ellen Moore Osborne — are running opposed for the White Hall and Scottsville districts, respectively.
Oberg, a lawyer, first was elected in 2015. Osborne is seeking to fill the seat held by Steve Koleszar, who has served on the board since 1996 and is not seeking re-election. Osborne is the executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle.
Le is a former journalist and current managing editor of the University of Virginia’s alumni magazine. Arsali works in real estate and previously founded a nonprofit community center in New Mexico to prevent youth suicide.
The climate of board meetings came up several times as the candidates discussed changes to how public comment is heard and the police presence at meetings.
Public comment has been a sore spot for the board. In August 2018, a meeting abruptly ended after only one person made a public comment and others in the crowd spoke out of turn. A week later, six people were arrested after demonstrations inside and outside Lane Auditorium during a board meeting. At other meetings, people deemed disruptive have been asked to leave and escorted out.
Since the arrests, the School Board moved public comment to the end of its agenda, which members of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County criticized as a barrier to participation. After Alcaro became chairman this year, he moved public comment up earlier in the agenda for the board’s monthly business meetings. During board work sessions, typically the second meeting of the month, public comment is near the end of the agenda.
Alcaro said changes are needed to make meetings more welcoming and that the board is open to suggestions.
Oberg said the recent engagement at board meetings has been “awesome,” but he acknowledged that public comment is set up for a time when there isn’t as much participation.
“I think Jonno as the chair has made some pretty good changes, but as a division, we need to change how we’re doing it,” he said. “We’re thrilled when people come and testify even though sometimes we don’t look like it.”
Oliver, Le and Osborne supported having two public comment sections, one near the beginning and another at the end of each meeting.
“I think it’s really important that the community feels welcome because we’re serving them,” Oliver said. “We’re here to serve them and their children, our children, and it’s important for them to have an opportunity to voice their concerns.”
Le said she wants to have town halls with community members to allow for more time for board members to respond and hear concerns. Currently, there is a three-minute limit for speakers during public comment periods.
Arsali said she appreciates the live-streaming of meetings and online sign-up for public comments, which she said could allow more people to engage with the board. She didn’t propose specific changes to public comment policies but did support the idea of town hall meetings.
“I love this. I love talking about education,” she said. “ I think it’s the most important thing that we have in our society, so the more opportunities we have for that, the better.”
Osborne, too, said she supports having town halls.
“I also want to move the stanchions,” she said, referring to post and rope barriers set up at meetings.
The stanchions, first set up at School Board meetings earlier this year, block access to members and division staff who sit on the dais. A division spokesman said earlier this year that the barriers are a safety and security measure.
“It feels like it’s an us and them kind of thing, and that’s just not necessary,” Osborne said. “It just gives a bad aura to it.”
All of the candidates agreed that having multiple police officers at board meetings — which has become the norm in recent months — is a deterrent to community participation. Several of the candidates didn’t want to see any officers at meetings.
“I think we’ve had up to six, and that’s totally unnecessary,” Alcaro said.
Alcaro said he met with county law enforcement to discuss the police presence. He wants to see the number of officers reduced to one, but the law enforcement officials didn’t agree, he said. Still, he expects to have just one officer starting in January.
He said having an officer at meetings is for general security and is not necessarily related to public comment.
“... Especially in the days when people are allowed to carry weapons, including in public buildings,” he said.
Oliver said she isn’t in favor of having officers at meetings.
“... We want parents, and students if they want to come, to feel like they can speak out and not feel intimidated,” she said.
Le said she would be in favor of looking into removing the police. Arsali said that if the officers are a deterrent to community involvement, then the board should consider options to remove that barrier.
Oberg said the officers intimidate him, but he appreciates that they are there, especially when there’s a threat against the School Board. Osborne also said she isn’t comfortable with the police presence at meetings.
Other topics discussed at the forum included access to alternative learning centers, the need for parent perspectives on the School Board and equity issues.