Funding – and whether local schools have enough of it – was a key topic in the first debate between two candidates on the ballot in the Nov. 6 special election for chairman of the Prince William County School Board.
Interim School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef and Gainesville District School Board Representative Alyson Satterwhite, who announced her candidacy for chair in March, met for a 90-minute forum Thursday, Sept. 27, sponsored by the Prince William Committee of 100.
The two are officially running as independents, as required by Virginia law, but have received endorsements from their respective political parties.
Lateef, 46, has been endorsed by the Prince William Democratic Committee, while Satterwhite, 52, was endorsed by the Prince William County Republican Committee in September.
They will be joined on the ballot by a third candidate, Stanley Bender, who did not attend the Sept. 27 debate.
Lateef and Satterwhite answered questions about school security, overcrowded classrooms, how they would address lagging teacher salaries and whether the county’s “revenue-sharing agreement” between the Prince William Board of Supervisors and school board should continue.
Lateef, an eye surgeon and father of four children now enrolled in local schools, said the school division’s challenges are largely due to a lack of sufficient funding. He said the school board is partly to blame.
“We have had a school board that has been soft and irresponsible in their ability to advocate on behalf of the children of our county,” Lateef said. “We have the lowest paid teachers in the region. We are the lowest per-pupil spending county in the region. We have a race to the bottom here. This is unacceptable.”
Satterwhite, a mother of four grown children, talked of efforts the board has made during her tenure to improve student programs and teacher pay. Satterwhite noted she supported teacher and staff pay increases every year since taking office in 2012. She also said she has opposed new housing developments that would further crowd county schools.
Still, Satterwhite said she too, believes the school division must address teacher pay as well as the need for more classroom space. Satterwhite called the revenue-sharing agreement, which largely caps local school funding at 57.23 percent of general tax revenue “a crutch,” and said county leaders must fund the school division’s five-year spending plan as well as efforts to accelerate new school construction.
“Whatever it takes to get it done, we need to do it. Our students deserve it, our teachers deserve it,” Satterwhite added. “Our parents want their children in regular classrooms and out of the overcrowded classrooms.”
Resignation prompts special election
Local elections for the Prince William County School Board and Board of Supervisors won’t occur until 2019. The county has called a special election for the at-large school board chairman’s seat this fall, however, because the former chairman, Ryan Sawyers, resigned from his post in March. Whoever wins in November will face re-election next year.
Satterwhite was a vocal critic of Sawyers’ leadership of the school board. In her opening statement, she noted Lateef was a “top donor” to Sawyers’ 2015 campaign and said the community now has an opportunity to vote for a school board chairman who will not “needlessly inject politics into our school system.”
The school board is currently split 5 to 3 with Democratically-endorsed members in the majority. The split has at times caused friction, resulting in several party-line votes.
One of the most contentious came in June 2017, when the school board voted 5 to 3, again along party lines, to expand its nondiscrimination policy to protect gay and transgender students and staff. Satterwhite voted against the change; Lateef was not on the board at the time.
Under Sawyers’ leadership, the school board also took a controversial vote to rename the former Mills E. Godwin Middle School to George Hampton Middle School. The change removed the name of a once-segregationist Virginia governor from a minority-majority school as a compromise struck while naming Kyle Wilson Elementary School. The vote was initially unanimous, but Republican-endorsed school board members sought to reverse the name change after some in the community opposed it.
The school board also debated for weeks in early 2017 about whether to accept an extra $21.3 million in county funding to expand the planned 13th high school to accommodate an additional 500 students.
Although half of the money was used to purchase a new school site in Lake Ridge, some Democrats on the school board opposed accepting the money because they said it did not do enough to alleviate school overcrowding in eastern Prince William elementary schools.
During the debate, Satterwhite noted that she “fought” for the school board to accept the money over Sawyers’ objections.
Lateef was not on the school board during any of those contentious debates but said he has called for a careful review of all school board policies to better guide decision-making.
Both oppose arming teachers
The candidates found common ground, however, on school security. Both said they support the pilot program to add five armed “school security specialists” to bolster security among the county’s 61 elementary schools, as well as the ongoing presence of armed school resource officers in all county middle and high schools.
Both also said they support the school board’s recent decision to spend an additional $1 million to even out school-security equipment -- such as door locks and buzzed entry systems -- across the school division, work that will be complete by the end of the school year, Satterwhite said.
When asked about school security and whether they would consider arming teachers, Lateef answered: “Absolutely not.”
Satterwhite said she ran out of time to address the question about arming teachers during the debate but said in an email that she, too, opposes the idea.
“I do not support teachers being armed in our schools,” Satterwhite wrote. “Instead, I support school security specialists, such as our school resource officers and community safety officers, being armed to protect our students and schools. I have been very vocal on this since before I decided to run for chairman.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org