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As one candidate poked around the edges, the other went right for the jugular when asked what the Arlington school system could and should be doing to address disparities in academic performance among different socio-economic groups.

“A return to school is the biggest equity issue. We should be opening the doors – right now, this spring. We should be trying harder,” said Miranda Turner, who along with Mary Kadera is seeking the Democratic endorsement for the School Board seat being vacated after a single term by Monique O’Grady.

Turner and Kadera battled it out (“virtually”) in an April 29 forum sponsored by the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

Turner has made the Arlington school system’s lethargic return-to-class policy a cornerstorne of her insurgent campaign, hoping it will resonate with parents weary of a two-day-on-three-day-off approach that likely will remain the norm until the end of the school year.

Kadera, by contrast, has been less forceful in her views on the subject, and didn’t touch on returning to class in answering the question about achievement gaps, which was the first of the evening’s proceedings. Instead, Kadera focused on what students should be taught while in the classrooms.

“We have to have the right curriculum,” she said, while also pointing to providing an environment where all students “feel safe, they feel valued.” “The academics and the school-culture piece really go hand in hand,” Kadera said.

With caucus voting coming up shortly (see www.arlingtondemcorats.org for the details), and with Kadera having emerged as the de-facto choice of a Democratic establishment that most decidedly does not want to see a fierce critic of the school system’s back-to-class policies elected, she may be forgiven for spending much of the evening discussing metrics, data and the like while trying to avoid unforced errors.

Turner, on the other hand, was pressing her well-honed mantra that Arlington needs a coherent educational strategy, one where parents and students aren’t at the mercy of leadership fiefdoms at individual schools. Literacy, she said, needs to be addressed “across all schools in a consistent manner.”

“We need to be more open about these issues. We need to face them – holding everyone, including the School Board, accountable,” Turner said.

Despite having budgets the envy of nearly every other school district in the nation, Arlington Public Schools and its leadership have had a difficult time trimming the achievement gaps between white and Asian students on one side and other groups on the other. Over the years, millions upon millions of dollars were thrown at the problem and a number of superintendents and two major advocates for addressing the issue – Emma Violand-Sánchez and James Lander – came and went, but the disparities remained.

Factoring COVID and other hot-button issues like boundaries into the mix, Arlington has found it hard to keep School Board members on the job. In addition to O’Grady, who departs in December after just four years, the body last year lost Tannia Talento after four years and Nancy Van Doren after six.

The five-member body’s most senior member – Barbara Kanninen – attempted to win a promotion to the County Board in a 2020 special election, but was turned back by the electorate, which supported Takis Karantonis instead.

Word on the street is that some in the Democratic in-crowd were approached to run this year but begged off, leaving the party leadership faced with semi-outsider Kadera or definite-outsider Turner as its options.

In the classic political theory of “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” many of those in-crowd Democrats have embraced Kadera as the best option on the table.