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Arlington and Falls Church leaders advise Alexandria’s School Board to stagger terms and reduce size

Arlington School Board chair Goldstein (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Alexandria School Board members spoke with leaders from nearby school districts on staggered terms and board sizes and the takeaway was: Alexandria’s School Board is too bloated and too prone to rapid turnover.

Last night, Alexandria’s School Board hosted a panel to discuss potentially staggering Alexandria’s election cycle and adjusting the size of the board. On the panel:

  • Peter Noonan — Superintendent of Falls Church City Public Schools
  • Reid Goldstein — Arlington School Board Member
  • Libby Garvey — Vice-Chair of the Arlington County Board

All of the panelists agreed that staggered terms are better for maintaining stability and that Alexandria’s nine-member board was too large to be effective.

Goldstein said five board members are ideal. While a larger Board can have more subcommittees, it also makes coordinating decisions exponentially more difficult.

“The downside of more board members to me is the amount of time and work you have to do calling each one saying ‘where are you on this? Did you talk to them about this idea?” Goldstein said. “That back and forth is extremely time-consuming with five of us, I can’t imagine how you do it with nine. I’d be worried about that with a larger board, even going from five to seven.”

Noonan agreed, having worked with sizes from five-person boards to twelve.

“A five-member board is really great,” Noonan said. “Part of the reason it’s great is, from an operational perspective, much of the work we do is relational… I think five to seven feels really right.”

The trio of panelists was also universally in agreement that staggered terms were better for preserving institutional knowledge and making governance overall more effective.

“I don’t really see any downsides to not staggering,” Garvey said.  “If you want to make a quick change it’s a disadvantage, but these are organizations where you don’t really want to make quick changes because the whole thing can crash and burn. Continuity is so important.”

Garvey said that she considered herself a candidate who came to office pushing for a change in the status quo, the type of candidate that typically would benefit from not having staggered terms, but serving in that elected role changed her thought on that.

“If you turn the boat too quickly, the whole thing might capsize,” Garvey said. “Having the whole crew change is overwhelming. Some change is good. We have a lot of change coming up with two new board members after eight years of being pretty steady.”

Goldstein said with the level of turnover Alexandria has seen in its School Board, members are leaving the board just as they are getting used to their roles.

“I do see a difference, there is more continuity,” Goldstein said. “Board members are learning the job, they’re digging in. That’s particularly noticeable when you’re turning over board members and you have a newbie who takes six months to a year to find their sea legs. When you’re not turning over board members, bringing a new one on every year, there’s a noticeable difference in the maturity level and the continuity.”

Noonan said that, from a staff perspective, it can be a challenging year and a half as new School Board members get settled into their roles and go through a learning curve.

“Everybody comes to it with a good idea of what they think the school system should look like, but once you pull back the curtain, it’s different than what you might think,” Noonan said. “Bringing new board members right away on the budget cycle has been good but challenging. From an operational perspective, it takes a lot of time and energy to do onboarding.”

There were a few other parts of Alexandria’s School Board election cycle that struck the panelists as being inefficient. Noonan said four-year terms rather than the current three-year terms, for instance, would line up with most superintendent contracts.

Garvey also took aim at Alexandria’s district system for its School Board.

“Alexandria is so small,” Garvey said. “I live in South Arlington and I had to get up to North Arlington and I had to listen to people, to what they wanted, and I had to think about it. Sometimes it was a bother and it pulled me out of my comfort zone, but it made me a better School Board member and County Board member. I don’t think it’s all that helpful… to be balkanized [into three districts].”

The panelists also agreed on one other topic, Alexandria’s School Board needs to play nice with City Council, especially if the School Board wants to move forward on changes that will not only require city approval, but state approval. Alexandria’s School Board has an, at times, notably fraught relationship with city leadership.

“You need to have the City Council on board with you,” Garvey said. “Maybe take them out to dinner and break bread. You’re not going to be able to do this [without them] and hopefully, you get them to come along.”

“A good relationship with your City Council is paramount,” Goldstein agreed.

For what it’s worth, 65.7% of ALXnow readers said in a poll yesterday they believe Alexandria’s School Board should have staggered terms.

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