Crozet resident Allison Spillman has jumped into the race for the Albemarle County School Board at-large seat and will face Meg Bryce in the November 7 election. Spillman had applied for the White Hall District seat vacated by David Oberg last fall, but she decided not to run again for that position. “When the School Board made that choice in December, I thought Dr. [Rebecca] Berlin was a really good pick. She’s going to run again, and I think we have a lot of similar beliefs.”
Spillman said that outgoing at-large board member Jonno Alcaro, who had met her during the interview process, approached her to ask if she’d consider running for the open seat, and she agreed. “I feel like there are a lot of things going on in our state and locally that I feel passionate about, and my kids are all in school and doing well, so I have time to devote to it,” she said.
A UVA alum who has lived in Chicago, Arizona, and Virginia Beach, Spillman and her husband returned to the Albemarle area in 2019 after running and eventually selling a family business for which Spillman was the chief operating officer for seven years. “My husband started his law firm and we began the adoption process for our youngest two children in 2015, which was super time-consuming,” she said. “Here I’m on the board of Reclaimed Hope [an organization that provides support for families navigating adoption and foster care], which is amazing and very fulfilling, but my job now is being a mom.”
Spillman believes that her experiences with the diverse needs of her five children give her a unique perspective on how to support students with a variety of needs. She has a first and third grader who were adopted from foster care, one of whom has a significant genetic disorder and mental health issues; twin seventh graders, one of whom is a member of the LGBTQ+ community; and a high school junior who also struggles with mental health challenges. “My kids are amazing,” she said, “and I feel passionate about making sure our schools make all kids feel safe and represented and that they can be themselves.
“We’ve got educators and lawyers on the School Board, but having business experience gives me a different view,” she continued. “It’s kind of like being a Chief Operating Officer—you’re running a huge system and you’ve got to make sure it’s running effectively and efficiently and your employees are happy and motivated. The board’s goal is thriving students and happy teachers, and someone having financial experience and managing the budget is important for that. I think it’s our job to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and get the most out of our public schools.”
The School Board selects the Superintendent of the school division, who in turn staffs each of the division’s departments with administrators who will further the board’s vision, consistent with its stated mission. Spillman believes the board must be responsive to the concerns of the communities they serve as well as those of the over 2,600 employees. “One of my biggest criticisms of the School Board is their lack of transparency and lack of the right kinds of communication,” she said. “I believe that they’re making decisions in everyone’s best interest, but I want to know—what led you to that decision? Give people the information to help bridge that gap.”
On the appropriate relationship between the board and Superintendent, Spillman said they should advise and help each other, but that “it often feels like one is just telling the other what to do.” “I know there’s a lot of frustration and a general lack of confidence in [division] leadership, and having run a business, I know that’s a deadly thing,” she said. “There has to be good communication between managers and employees, and you have to trust that your managers are capable of doing their jobs.”
Regarding the achievement gaps between various student demographic groups, Spillman says it’s important to tackle sub-par achievement for all students at the same time. “The mission is for all students to thrive,” she said. “I think our disparities in Black and Brown student groups and lower socio-economic groups are a long-standing issue with ACPS, and they were exacerbated by Covid, but we have to put resources in place immediately to get everybody back to where they should be—we can’t just wait around for them to catch up.
“I think we need more early intervention, more reading specialists,” she continued. “I think we need more teaching assistants and classroom assistants because our teachers are already overworked with students at very different reading levels. That comes back to the issue of supporting our teachers—if you’re saying that our teachers are our biggest asset, then treat them as such. They should have a seat at the table [in a formal collective bargaining agreement], because they’re the frontline workers. I’m supporting collective bargaining because it’s about giving them a voice and showing them the respect they deserve.”
Spillman worries that teachers are overworked and underpaid, which will lead to more resignations amid a national teacher shortage. “In the special education program, many of those teachers are just at their wit’s end,” she said. “There are five open teaching positions [in that program], and those are the most vulnerable kids—10% of our student population has an IEP or a 504 [special needs learning plan]. ACPS’s solution is to hire recent high school graduates and train them up, but that, to me, is the absolute wrong approach.”
Post-pandemic, the school division has made a point of hiring mental health counselors for each school, as well as safety coaches in middle and high schools who can talk with and listen to students’ concerns, but Spillman says that is insufficient. “I think that we are in a mental health crisis, especially in our high schools,” she said. “I think we could put more social workers in the schools, and I think we could use trained staff mediators and conflict resolution programs that can help with issues like those at Albemarle High School, where we’ve got a lot of disruption and increased violence.”
Spillman does not, however, agree that School Resource Officers (SRO)—police officers trained to work with school populations—should be brought back at the present time after the School Board voted to remove them in 2020. Superintendent Matt Haas and the current board agreed to rehire one SRO for the Albemarle High School district to restore a safe environment. “Putting armed officers in the schools is never going to solve the problems,” she said. “The data shows that our Black and Brown kids and lower socioeconomic status students are targeted more by SRO’s, they feel more threatened, more called out, and the students don’t feel safer.”
Along with collective bargaining for employees, increased mental health services, school safety, and equal educational opportunities, Spillman puts inclusion and equity as one of the key issues of her campaign. “There are some very real threats to our students right now, especially trans [transgender] students and members of that community,” she said. “I love our trans protection policy at ACPS, I think it is profound.”
When the policy was first implemented, many division parents voiced concerns about a part of the policy that bars parents from being informed that their child is experiencing gender dysphoria or is socially transitioning unless the student agrees they may be told. “I think that [parental notification] puts our children at risk of self-harm, suicide, abuse at home,” said Spillman. “It’s the school’s mission to keep our kids safe, and implementing this policy keeps them safe. They are at risk—it’s not a hypothetical, it happens all the time—and school may be the only place they feel safe.”
In thinking about the impact she wants to make on the School Board’s role and vision, Spillman said she saw most clearly the deep divides in the school division during the public comment section of a recent meeting where employee union representatives were rebuffed by board members. “The board was dismissive of the teachers and their concerns, and it was heartbreaking sitting in the audience and hearing the teachers’ dismay,” she said. “They had lost faith in their school board. They just didn’t feel heard, didn’t feel like they were on the same team, and that’s what most needs to change.”