Prince William’s two teacher unions agree on some candidates for school board in the upcoming Nov. 3 election, but have parted ways in a few key races -- including the countywide contest for school board chair.
The Prince William Federation of Teachers has endorsed Ryan Sawyers, who has the support of local Democrats, over opponents Tracy Conroy, who is running without partisan support, and Tim Singstock, who has the backing of the local Republican committee.
The Prince William Education Association, however, has declined to pick a candidate to replace outgoing school board Chairman Milt Johns because none of the three candidates won a majority of votes cast by members of its political arm, the Political Action Committee for Educators, according to Jim Livingston, PWEA and PACE president.
Bill Hosp, president of the 100-member PWFT, said his group likes the leadership experience Sawyers, a small business owner and former college baseball coach, brings to the position.
But Livingston said PACE, which represents the 4,000-member education association, has reservations about all three candidates. Regarding Singstock, a resident of Montclair who ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2003, PACE members expressed concern about ideology and his “possible support” for both charter schools and publicly-funded school vouchers, Livingston said.
Regarding both Sawyers and Conroy, PACE members are wary about their lack of leadership and political experience.
Conroy, who lives in Bristow, is a registered nurse and ran the “Our Schools” Facebook blog prior to entering the race for school board chairman last spring.
“Although [Conroy] has followed the workings of the school board for some time, there was a lot of discussion about her ability to organize and build consensus because she doesn’t have a background in that type of thing,” Livingston said.
“For Sawyers … it was much the same. There were some folks that had some concerns that he didn’t have the background that might be necessary,” Livingston added. “There was a lot of discussion that the school board commands an even larger budget than the board of supervisors. Without any real leadership experience, quite honestly, that gave the committee pause, and they did not feel comfortable recommending one over the other.”
PWEA members are further concerned that none of three candidates fully grasps the scope of Prince William County schools’ funding crisis, which Livingston and others have said is too severe to be solved by simply reprioritizing school-division spending, as many candidates have suggested.
Teachers are underpaid and overworked and beset by the some of the largest class sizes and student caseloads in the state, Livingston said.
“We cannot solve the financial problems of the school system simply by making cuts, we just can’t do it. As we see it, we’re cut to the bone right now,” he added.
In other contested school board contests, the unions also disagreed on candidates in the Neabsco and Occoquan district races.
In Occoquan, the teacher federation endorsed incumbent board member Lillian Jessie, who has received the support of local Democrats. But the education association’s PACE membership declined to issue and endorsement, Livingston said, because none of the three candidates received a majority of votes. Jessie faces two challengers: John Gray, endorsed by local Republicans, and Karen Boyd, an independent.
PWEA also declined to endorse for the Neabsco district seat being vacated by school board member Lisa Bell, who is not running. The federation, however, will back Joseph George because of his enthusiasm for the job and because of his past involvement in parent groups at his children’s schools, Hosp said.
George is running against Diane Raulston, who has been endorsed by local Democrats.
In the Potomac district, both unions endorsed former middle school teacher Justin Wilk over retired principal and longtime school board member Betty Covington, who is seeking a fourth term as in the Potomac district.
Hosp said Wilk got the federation’s nod both because he is a member and because of the community-outreach experience he’s gained as a consultant with K12 Insight, which advises school divisions across the country.
Hosp also said Covington’s vote to support a 2012 teacher-contract change that tacked an extra half-hour to the teacher workday in exchange for a modest pay increase was a blow to teacher morale.
“They tried to sell it as more time to do planning but that’s not how it worked out in practice,” said Hosp, noting that most teachers routinely stay longer than their 7.5-hour contract day or bring work home. “It was really perceived as some kind of smack down for [teachers] being too uppity.”
Covington’s vote on that issue was also part of the PACE discussion, Livingston said. But members were also “just looking for change” in the Potomac District.
“Betty’s been a longtime supporter of kids and schools and continues to be,” Livingston said. “But Mr. Wilk had more votes in the room when it came down to it. There were a lot of discussions about that race.”
The two groups also agreed on William F. “Bill” Reeder, who is running to replace outgoing school board member Michael Otaigbe in the Coles district. Reeder, who recently retired as a dean at George Mason University, faces Republican-backed Willie Deutsch and Reginald Henderson, who has been endorsed by local Democrats.
“[Reeder] has a vast background in education and that was very gratifying to the committee,” Livingston said. “He understands what it’s like to be in a classroom, he has k-12 background and he has an outstanding command of the issues facing public schools.”
School board members Gil Trenum (Brentsville), Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) and Loree William (Woodbridge) are running unopposed.
Both unions sent surveys to all candidates and conducted follow-up interviews with those who responded. According to Livingston and Hosp, individual members of the two groups’ political committees cast votes for the endorsements.
Although teachers’ unions do not have collective bargaining rights in Virginia -- a “right-to-work” state where union membership can’t be compelled – both the PWFT and PWEA are affiliated with national teachers’ unions and call their groups unions.