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BTW interview with Sarah Breedin-Chase, challenger in the Falmouth district School Board race

In anticipation of the upcoming election on November 7th, BTW has reached out to all Supervisor and School Board candidates to answer some questions about their candidacy. Today, we present the responses from Sarah Breedin-Chase, challenger in the Falmouth District School Board race.

BTW: Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. My mother’s family is from Spotsylvania, and we spent summers in the Fredericksburg area. I have a bachelor of science in psychology from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in cognitive neuropsychology from Rice University. After completing my doctorate, I did a post-doctoral fellowship in the neurology department at Temple University in Philadelphia, researching speech and language deficits.

In 2000, my husband, Ben, and I settled in Stafford to be closer to family, employment opportunities in the Northern Virginia area, and because of the great schools. While raising our three children, I have been a visiting professor off and on at UMW and an active volunteer in Stafford schools. I served on the PTO/PTA boards of Falmouth, Drew, and Stafford High School. I’ve been on redistricting and county advisory committees. When Stafford County Public Schools was considering closing Drew Middle School, I took a leadership role in keeping the school open. A more complete list of my volunteering can be found on my campaign’s website.

BTW: What drove your decision to enter the School Board race?

I feel enormous gratitude to the Falmouth community. Our children have received a terrific education and learned the value and importance of volunteering in the community. Over the past eight years, I have seen high-quality teachers leaving Stafford and I am concerned. In March of 2015, Stafford County Schools received the results of an efficiency study conducted by Evergreen. I was horrified by many of the proposals set forth in the report. On July 30, 2015, it was revealed that some employees of the school system had been hiding salary lapse funds and then redistributing them without the oversight of the school board. This had been going on for upwards of twelve years. These events compelled me to run for office.

BTW: What differentiates you from the incumbent in your race?

I think what differentiates me from Scott Hirons and all the members currently sitting on the School Board is that I have many years of teaching experience. I can bring the perspective of an educator to the school board. In addition, as a university professor, I have taught college freshmen and have first-hand experience working with students who have graduated from Virginia’s public schools. I have seen how Virginia’s focus on the Standards of Learning has negatively impacted our children’s ability to think and learn at the college level. I also know that college is not for everyone. We need to provide more career and technical education for these students.

BTW: What, if any, mistakes do you think the board in general has made that you would not?

There are definitely decisions that I wish the school board had not made, but I can’t know what I would have done in the same situation, because I wasn’t in their shoes. I am more interested in what we are going to do about our schools moving forward.

BTW: What skills do you bring to the table that make you a particularly good choice for the job?

In addition to being a parent and the teaching and volunteering experiences that I mentioned earlier, my years as a researcher/scientist required that I develop strong critical thinking skills and good data analysis and interpretation skills. I enjoy looking for patterns and inconsistencies in data, and I like solving problems.

What are the most pressing issues that you feel face SCPS?

The most important responsibility of a school board is to provide the conditions for students to engage in learning and obtain the skills needed to be contributing members of society. High-quality teachers and support staff are essential for accomplishing this goal. Unfortunately, the Evergreen report, past financial mismanagement, stagnant, below market salaries, and reduction of benefits has led many high-quality teachers and support staff to seek employment elsewhere. In addition, there is an ongoing shortage nationally in the number of people choosing teaching as a profession.

A second important issue is schools in the Falmouth district are not performing as well as the rest of the county. Dr. Benson is proud that our county has moved up in the Niche rankings from 26th out of 131 school systems in Virginia to 17th. But in examining the Niche data in detail, it is alarming to see that the schools located east and south of I-95 are not performing as well as the rest of the county. I was particularly distressed to see that Conway and Falmouth Elementary schools were 15th and 17th out of the 17 elementary schools in the county. Some might wonder if this difference is the result of a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students. But there are three elementary schools with a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students that are ranked above Conway and Falmouth. According to Niche, over 20% of Falmouth’s teachers had only 1-2 years of teaching experience last year.

Overall, Stafford’s elementary schools are performing lower than our middle or high schools. I am concerned about the future of our schools if current conditions in our elementary schools are not addressed. Some of the credit for our middle and high schools’ current performance is due to the foundation laid during elementary school 6-12 years ago. There was recently some good news from the school system about a reduction in class sizes at the elementary school level. As of September 30th, we had almost reached the goal of no elementary classes with more than 27 students. But, it is important to realize that this decrease in class size comes with an increase in inexperienced teachers. The challenge is to ensure that we keep these new and energetic teachers in Stafford schools.

BTW: If elected, how do you plan to address the issues from the previous question?

First, the school board needs to continue to work to regain the trust of our teachers, staff, and Stafford taxpayers. In the 17 years I have lived in Stafford, there have only been two or three years when I didn’t hear that the schools were short of funds. I used to believe this, but then the hidden $8.3 million was discovered.

Dr. Benson and the school board are definitely working to clean up the school system’s accounting. They now use a zero-baseline budget. But I think there is more work to be done. For example, the Finance and Budget Committee is asking for monthly updates on how much money has accrued due to salary lapse funds. But they should also be asking for an itemized accounting of those funds. How much is coming from unfilled positions? How much is coming from retirements? How much is coming from not being able to find substitute teachers and then taking away a teacher’s planning time? They should also be looking critically at the number of unfilled positions each month.

Second, increased funding for the schools would make solving teacher and staff retention easier, but I’d like to look at the school board’s spending priorities. I think education should be the priority. High-quality teachers and support staff are essential in providing a good education. We have been losing experienced teachers to higher paying counties or to counties with friendlier working conditions. Teachers, support staff, and parents are routinely told that there is no money for a salary increase. But there has been money for a marketing and public relations campaign that included redesigning all of the schools’ websites, a new logo, and promotional videos. There is almost a million dollars in the budget for administrators and teachers to attend conferences. These are just a couple of examples of spending choices that indicate teacher and support staff compensation is not the priority.

Third, I’d like to see something done to improve education at the lower performing schools in the county. What is causing the difference? Is it a function of the number of experienced teachers? Is there a difference in the resources provided to the schools? Are some school administrators better at getting parents involved in their children’s education? If we can find the cause, we can address it so that all of the children in Stafford County have the opportunity to receive a great education.

BTW: The relationship between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board has long been a rocky one. Are you willing to work hand in hand with the Board of Supervisors to deal with the problems facing our school system?

Absolutely! I have known and worked with Falmouth’s incumbent supervisor, Meg Bohmke, for 16 years. I’ve also met with Mrs. Bohmke’s challenger, Greg Bundrick. He is interested in working with the school board to find ways to increase teacher and staff compensation. In addition, over the course of this campaign, I have run into Supervisors Thomas and Snellings. They both expressed a commitment to supporting education.