School Board aspirants clash on boundaries, safety

Fairfax County School Board at-large candidates Abrar Omeish, Cheryl Buford, incumbent Karen Keys-Gamarra, Priscilla DeStefano, Rachna Sizemore Heizer and Vinson Xavier Palathingal give their views during a Sept. 23, 2019, debate at the Fairfax County Government Center. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

At-Large School Board Candidates Clash on Boundaries, Guns


Staff Writer

Six candidates vying for three at-large seats on the Fairfax County School Board this November split largely into two camps while pitching their views to voters during a Sept. 23 debate at the Fairfax County Government Center.

The debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area, featured three Democrat-endorsed candidates – Abrar Omeish, Rachna Sizemore Heizer and incumbent Karen Keys-Gamarra – squaring off against three who have the GOP’s endorsement – Cheryl Buford, Priscilla DeStefano and Vinson Xavier  Palathingal.

The moderator, author and journalist Michael Lee Pope, probed candidates’ views on a host of issues:

Boundary Changes: The Republican-endorsed candidates were critical of school leaders’ actions. DeStefano worried boundaries might be redrawn based on racial composition. Buford said the School Board recently “tried to ramrod a policy change without community input” and Palathingal accused Keys-Gamarra of “plain, outright lying” in the matter.

Keys-Gamarra said the School Board was getting an outside consultant to look into potential boundary changes. Heizer said boundary policies had not undergone a comprehensive review since 1986, while Omeish said she hoped boundary discussions would begin with “listening, empathy and understanding.”

Transgender Policies: DeStefano and Palathingal opposed permitting students who are biologically male, but identify as female, from playing girls’ sports. Buford cautioned against getting ahead of federal legislation on the matter, but said Title IX rules were enacted to “ensure women an opportunity to compete, and we should respect that.”

Keys-Gamarra said some candidates were using transgender issues as a “political football” to “scare our community.” Heizer and Omeish favored cultivating a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for students of all orientations.

Teacher Salaries: All the candidates supported higher teacher pay. Heizer also pushed to give teachers greater autonomy and time to collaborate and plan. Palathingal and Buford said teachers also could benefit from improved student-discipline policies.

Classroom Technology: Heizer and Keys-Gamarra favored providing laptop computers to students, saying they needed to be technologically literate to succeed, while Omeish and DeStefano expressed concerns about technology’s effects on students’ health and sleep patterns.

Palathingal worried about the cost of maintaining all those laptop computers and said students’ screen time should be limited. Buford said classroom technology was a “fad that’s not well-thought-out” and that it changes teacher-student dynamics.

Firearms in Schools: While favoring safe schools, Omeish and Keys-Gamarra opposed the presence of more weapons in schools and monitoring students’ mental health.

Buford, DeStefano and Palathingal favored having Fairfax County Police Department school-resource officers in elementary schools as well as middle and high schools, but Heizer opposed this, saying such officers “increase the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Omeish is co-founder of GIVE (Growth and Inspiration Through Volunteering and Education), has chaired the Student Human Rights Commission, served on several School Board advisory committees, was president of Fairfax County Public Schools’ Superintendent’s Advisory Council and worked to amend school-system policies on bullying.

Omeish, who started a non-profit organization that provides free tutoring, said the community needs to “fight for access to the American Dream for every child in Fairfax County.”

Heizer is an attorney, college professor, disability-justice advocate and fitness instructor. She has served on the boards of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, FCPS Advisory Committee for Students with Disabilities, Fairfax County Alliance for Human Services, Fairfax County Special Education PTA and ARC of Northern Virginia.

Heizer opposed having instructors “teach to the test” and favored more creative thinking in education.

“I am here to be the voice for the children who need it,” she said.

Keys-Gamarra joined the School Board after winning an August 2017 special election to fill the unexpired term of Jeanette Hough (At-Large), who resigned so she could accompany her husband on an overseas work assignment. Keys-Gamarra is an Oakton resident and former Fairfax County Planning Commission member. Younger children should be exposed to foreign languages, she said.

“When you develop a good educational plan for children, you give them the keys to success,” Keys-Gamarra.

Buford, a former career-and-technical education and family economics teacher, worked at the U.S. Department of Education and was a volunteer for 15 years when her children attended Fairfax County schools. She formerly worked for the United Way of America and now is vice president of Social Capital Valuations LLC.

Buford told the audience she would bring the most direct and relevant experience to the School Board.

“I will never forget that I work for you,” she said. “I will champion academic rigor for everyone.”

DeStefano is a first-generation American, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants. She became pregnant with year first son while attending Robinson Secondary School and graduated from Mountain View School. She has worked since she was 15 and holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from George Mason University.

“I want to represent people in Fairfax County who do not have a voice in this School Board,” she said.

Palathingal is a native of Kochi, India, and has lived in the United States for 27 years. His Website describes him as a serial entrepreneur, Asian-American community leader and free-market advocate. He won the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Exporter of the Year award in 2013.

Palathingal, who is an engineer, vowed to press for academic rigor, fiscal prudence and parents’ rights.

“Our public-school system is in serious trouble,” he said, saying FCPS was wasting money renaming schools while student performance has lagged.

All 12 Fairfax County School Board seats are on the ballot Nov. 5. The board features one member from each of the county’s magisterial districts, plus three at-large members.

This election will see an unusual amount of turnover on the School Board. Jane Strauss, who represents Dranesville District, is retiring. Dalia Palchik, the Providence District representative, is running unopposed as a Democrat seeking to become the Providence District supervisor. (Palchik’s Republican opponent, Paul Bolon, died of a heart attack this summer.)

School Board Patricia Hynes (Hunter Mill District) and Sandy Evans (Mason District) are not seeking re-election and At-Large member Ryan McElveen lost a Democratic-primary bid for Board of Supervisors chairman. At-Large member Ilryong Moon did not get the Democratic endorsement this summer and has withdrawn from the race.

(1) comment

Shiva Agarwal

Palathingal has claimed (incorrectly) that sex assigned at birth is the same as gender according to science as well as denying the need for people with disabilities to be accommodated.

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