In a debate Thursday at the University of Virginia, two independent candidates for Charlottesville City Council took swipes at the top vote-getter in the June Democratic primary, criticizing her for alleged problems in the city school system.
The forum was hosted by the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union.
After each candidate delivered a two-minute response to a question from the moderator, the candidates were given 10 minutes to address any topic. While discussing the importance of transparency and accountability, independents Kenny Jackson and Nikuyah Walker criticized Amy Laufer, a member of the city School Board whose two-term tenure has included a stint as chairwoman.
Jackson alluded to former Charlottesville High School teacher Richard Wellbeloved-Stone, who is facing federal child pornography charges.
“It doesn’t seem like you’re on the ball,” he said. “And … let’s face it: there are kids getting bullied everyday and we’re not following the school board’s policy about anti-bullying.”
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of white kids being picked on just for being white,” he said. “There are a lot of black kids getting picked on who are poor just because they don’t have the right shoes on.”
“If you run City Council like you run the School Board, we’re in trouble,” he said.
Laufer immediately pointed out that high school graduation rates, particularly those for African American students, have been steadily increasing during her tenure.
“We have raised graduation rates this year to 92 percent. African Americans are at 89.6 percent — that’s the highest in the city’s history since they’ve been taking this data,” she said. “This took so much discussion about what are the real barriers, finding the data and the gaps. We’re not perfect, we certainly haven’t fixed everything, but we’re at a point where we’re talking about things differently than we were six years ago.”
Laufer said she always carefully reviews school employee contracts before signing off on them, but that employees will sometimes be found guilty of criminal misconduct.
“I am one responsible for putting someone in front of a bunch of kids, including my own children. I take it very seriously,” she said.
Walker, who has staked her campaign on trying to hold city officials and nonprofit partners more accountable for measuring the effectiveness of public funding and outcomes, said she’s skeptical of how successful the graduates are after leaving the school system.
“The graduation rates have increased but they are graduating with diplomas that don’t mean anything,” Walker said. “You have kids graduating from high school that still can’t read or do basic math or write well.”
Laufer referred to her proposal to have the city fund Charlottesville High School graduates’ tuition to attend Piedmont Virginia Community College, but Walker also questioned how well some of those graduates are doing.
Laufer dished criticism of her own by taking aim at the City Council.
“I think our mayor has taken liberties he didn’t realize he doesn’t have,” she said, alluding to controversies that have followed the August white nationalist rally.
Laufer said the mayor is one among equals on the council, and that they are effectively a liaison between the community and the city manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city government.
“I feel this has gotten confused because people wanted to make it bigger than it is. I think we need to go back to that. I think we need better protocols,” she said. “I think our councilors are working as individuals and not as a team. And that is so critical.”
“You need to be talking with your colleagues to come up with better ideas,” she said. “That can’t be done in a vacuum.”
Heather Hill, the only other Democrat running for council, also accused the councilors of to working unilaterally and took aim at city management.
Hill, president of the North Downtown Residents Association, and Paul Long, an independent candidate, criticized the city for not doing enough before the Aug. 12 rally.
“During the summer, our neighborhood was never proactively informed about how to prepare for events we knew were coming,” Hill said, emphasizing her neighborhood’s proximity to Emancipation Park, where the rally took place.
“I would have been meeting with the public prior to Aug. 12,” Long said. “There has to be interaction with the community as to what’s going on with our City Council.”
While discussing what the city could be doing better, Long suggested that the council should meet weekly and give indviduals more time to speak during the public comment period at meetings, even if it means holding meetings until well after midnight.
Other topics included preserving the long-term viability of the Downtown Mall, race relations and the city’s relationship with the University of Virginia and Albemarle County.
“President [Donald] Trump is talking about tax relief for businesses. This would, in my opinion, [lead] to more job hiring and a living wage for employees,” said John Hall, one of the independent candidates. “The businesses on the Downtown Mall would benefit from tax relief.”