More than 300 local citizens streamed into the Field School gymnasium on Crozet Avenue September 11 for a town hall forum featuring the White Hall and At Large candidates that will be on the ballot this fall. The event was organized by a community group called the Crozet Leadership Team (CLT), a collection of neighborhood association representatives whose focus is on sharing useful information about important community issues among Crozet residents.
The two White Hall candidates for the Board of Supervisors’ race—incumbent Ann Mallek and challenger Brad Rykal, and four School Board candidates—Rebecca Berlin and Joann McDermid (White Hall seat) and Meg Bryce and Allison Spillman (At Large seat), answered local residents’ questions that were collected both before the event and in-person at the venue. Dori Zook, an anchor/reporter for WINA news radio, moderated, and members of the CLT read the questions and kept time. The candidates were given the opportunity to provide opening and closing statements, and had one minute to answer each question posed.
The Supervisor candidates kicked things off, and Mallek stressed her nearly 16 years of experience in the job studying the issues. “It’s not just showing up at meetings and deciding things,” she said. “I spend more time studying the agenda packet and asking questions than I do in meetings, and this spring there were more than 50 meeting hours [spent during] budget season. Today I serve on ten local committees and eleven state and federal committees, and this is all part of the job.” Mallek said a supervisor must be involved and available to residents, seek answers and have connections to all levels of government, respect the community, and get results.
Rykal averred that he is not a politician, but said that his experience both in the U.S. Army leading troops in Iraq and as Chief Operating Officer of a private company in the defense sector taught him to manage budgets, negotiate with governments, and get work done. “I think we’re tired of hearing excuses of why things aren’t getting done around here,” he said, and contrasted himself with Mallek, who lives in Earlysville. “I’m running because Crozet is my home. My kids go to the schools and play in the parks, I sit in the gridlocked traffic with you all and I so desperately want to make our community safer. The Army has a saying, ‘This we’ll defend’ … and if you choose to elect me, we will.”
The question topics ranged from budget and infrastructure issues to environmental concerns and growth and development controversies. In a response to a question about how the county should fund the recently ballooned $40 million Eastern Avenue connector cost, Rykal said the county has opted not to complete the road. “The plan right now is it’s never going to be done,” he said, “and yes, it’s about priorities. That’s what the county budget is for, and you have to make infrastructure the first priority for the safety of the community.”
“The Eastern Avenue project is not canceled, it’s being redesigned, remastered, and perhaps relocated in an effort to reduce costs,” said Mallek. “It is a very important project for public safety … but this is an example of how there are agencies beyond local government who have a role in these activities. I will push the boundaries as far as I can to make sure that we get the very best projects, and I will certainly not give up on this.”
To a question about how to work with other supervisors and find common ground to make decisions in the best interest of the wider community, Mallek said that establishing trust and building relationships with colleagues is “incredibly important and challenging.” “There may be six people, but there are six different perspectives on almost every issue,” she said. “[Those relationships] need constant tending, and [supervisors] must be very persuasive about the needs for each district.”
“We’ve heard this narrative quite a bit, that [the supervisor] is one of six votes,” said Rykal, “and I agree this may be the most crucial skill set you need to bring to the table, to be able to work with people in a cooperative manner. The tough part is, we feel that it’s six against zero against Crozet. Look at the last Crozet Master Plan that Supervisor Mallek voted yes on—the plan was terrible, the community was saying it wasn’t good for Crozet, but the only vote against was [cast by] a supervisor who used to live in Crozet and moved away for all the reasons I’m running right now.”
One questioner asked for the candidates’ positions on future tax increases if property values continue to rise. “The difficulty with this question is how we can address the capital projects, which everyone in this room needs to have built—the sidewalks, the new schools—these are all elements of great expense,” said Mallek. “That was the reason that I was in favor of the maintenance of the tax rate as it was; otherwise, our capital projects would have been slowed dramatically down, as they did in 2009 and 10. The majority at that time voted to reduce the tax rate, giving each landowner $50 or less for an average house, but it stopped $100 million of investment in capital projects, all of which were needed in this area.”
“Last year [assessments] went up a crazy amount, and it hurts when you get those kinds of tax bills in the mail,” said Rykal. “And it doesn’t just hurt us, because money out of our pockets [means] probably one less beer at PRN, one less pizza at Sal’s, less kolaches and coffee at Praha. So, I guess it’s fair to say that if there are going to be huge jumps in tax assessments, we need to make sure that people and local businesses aren’t hurting because of it.”
Asked about increasing affordable housing in Crozet, Rykal said, “There should have been about 300 affordable housing units built in the past 20 years, but it was something like less than a dozen. Crozet would look a lot different if just those numbers were actually accounted for, and I think that’s the issue right now—simply a lack of accountability. We’re going to have multiple opportunities to [enforce] the 15% affordable housing policy … and if elected, I’m going to make sure that they get done.”
Mallek talked about two significant changes currently being incorporated into housing policy. “I have been advocating ever since the Housing Albemarle project was brought forward that our [affordable] units need to be for people of incomes lower than 60% of average median income,” she said. “We have many, many residents who are of lower average income who need a place to live. So a mandatory 20% of units [must be affordable]—this is not a negotiation anymore—and the units must stay affordable for thirty years. These are two very big changes, and I support them.”
School Board Candidates
The School Board candidates next took the stage and made opening statements. Allison Spillman described herself as a former business owner with experience in finance and budgeting, former PTO member, and current board member of the Reclaimed Hope Initiative, and has five children in ACPS schools. “I have a neurodivergent child with a really extensive IEP,” she said, “I have a child who suffers from some mental health issues that were extremely exacerbated by COVID, a kid that plays football, and that kid’s twin sister is my trans daughter. I decided to run to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can thrive in our public schools.”
Spillman’s opponent for the At Large seat, Meg Bryce, has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and teaches at UVA, and has four children. Bryce said she and her husband recently made the difficult decision to move their elementary-age children out of the ACPS system after being shocked by School Board meetings. “The board was not listening to people, and we became so discouraged that we lost trust in the leadership of this district,” she said. “[But] rather than walking away, I came back to fight, and I’m fighting to represent the people who feel that the district has lost its way, and to make sure that every kid gets the best education possible.”
Rebecca Berlin is the current White Hall representative on the School Board and has worked in education for over 25 years as a teacher, coach, researcher, teacher preparation professor, and leader of education companies. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that whenever you’re discussing education issues, you must keep the student at the forefront of your mind,” said Berlin. “I have learned that we must continually ask the difficult questions and dig into the data, and then we must not accept what has been done before. We must be willing to take risks in order to get on the path of equitable outcomes for all children.”
Berlin’s opponent for the White Hall seat is Joann McDermid, an epidemiologist who has conducted research on HIV and tuberculosis in West Africa and has taught at Cornell University and the University of Virginia. “You have a choice,” McDermid said. “Do you want to continue in the direction of the current board, a board who promises you everything and fails to deliver year after year on its most fundamental mandate—to educate children in core subjects? The misaligned priorities of your current board are an ongoing problem, and yet there is no sense of urgency. Make no mistake, this board is making decisions that affect people’s lives.”
The candidates fielded a dozen questions on various education policy and leadership issues, and we highlight here several candidates’ responses that contrasted most sharply with those of their opponents.
The opening question asked about the ideal school day for a middle schooler. While Berlin and Spillman focused on instruction that includes executive functioning and comprehension skills paired with social/emotional and mental health resources, Bryce suggested a reversion to prior policies as well. “I believe students should have math and language arts every single day, and I think that deadlines should be a part of middle school … so that they can thrive in high school and college,” she said. McDermid pointed out that chronic absenteeism and ongoing bus availability problems affect students’ learning opportunities before they even arrive at school.
Regarding the perceived lack of transparency in ACPS, Spillman commented on the fear of repercussions that families, teachers and staff feel when speaking out. She suggested “an ombudsman position that’s a neutral party to mediate between parents, teachers, and the administration in the central office. We also need to be responding to public comment and emails, there needs to be follow up.”
Berlin said that since she began her tenure as a board member in January, she has focused on “proactive, clear, concise, timely, transparent communication that’s easy to find, easy to understand, and is actionable. … The leadership has to take ownership for its decisions, and understand that when they make a decision, the buck stops there and there are clear metrics of accountability.”
On a question about whether candidates support the division’s anti-racism and culturally responsive teaching (CRT) initiatives, McDermid noted that, looking at 2023 assessment data, ACPS’ Black and Hispanic students across grade levels are doing “worse, far worse than their counterparts in the rest of the state.” “That’s a problem,” she said. “If our policies were working, [those assessments] would be showing some improvement. They’re not.”
Spillman said that both Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and CRT policies are important. “You cannot have a strong academic program if you are not worried and focused on diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said. “[We must] have a program that ensures that we do not have systemic racism, [and it] was very apparent in the Bellwether report that Albemarle County schools are full of systemic racism that we need to deal with.”
Berlin said she supported both initiatives “150%.”… “Every child, and when I say every child I mean every child, needs to see themselves as a successful learner in our classrooms. The current board is providing support through 10 additional special education positions, 10 additional [English for Speakers of Other Languages] positions, and 36.75 reading specialists.”
Bryce said she did not support the initiatives, and pointed to the slide in SOL reading test pass rates among the division’s Black third graders from 60% to 39% to 31% over the last three years. “I think that’s shameful,” she said. “These policies have been in place for several years and we’re looking at the results. It’s not serving the population it’s meant to serve, and if it’s not working, you stop doing it.”
To a question about whether the school division should provide gun locks to parents who own firearms, Spillman and Berlin were broadly in support, while McDermid said the question did not fall under the role of a School Board member. “We have a policy for weapons at school, and if that is not implemented with fidelity then I will seek to rectify that,” said McDermid, “but if we’re talking about making policy within the community, that is not our goal.” Both McDermid and Bryce said they would bring School Resource Officers, who were removed by the School Board in 2021, back into schools.
A submitted question asked: In light of declining SOL scores, do the candidates support current ACPS policies for secondary schools such as “retakes on tests, 50% credit for doing no work, no grading of homework, and no firm deadlines,” which elicited chuckles from the audience. All of the candidates agreed that the school division should hold students accountable generally, though some in stronger terms than others.
“I think these grading policies are an unmitigated disaster,” said Bryce. “Time and time again, the phrase I hear from teachers is, ‘My hands are tied,’ tied by bad policies, so I would reverse these policies. As a [university] instructor, I see what happens when kids are not held accountable … and we can’t expect them to learn how to deal with stress and overcome it if we don’t give them the opportunity to do more things.”
Spillman spoke strongly in favor of collective bargaining rights for division employees. “Virginia teachers are some of the lowest paid in our entire country, and our teachers deserve to be paid what they are worth, and they deserve benefits. We owe it to our teachers and staff in order to have a strong public school system.” Berlin said the current School Board unanimously supports collective bargaining and wants to continue to negotiate it.
Regarding division leadership and the issue of constituents such as teachers, bus drivers, and parents feeling like they are not being heard by the School Board, Berlin said the board needs to do a better job, herself included, and she committed to doing so. Spillman conjectured that the problems may not stop with the superintendent and may involve a restructuring of the entire central office, while Bryce emphasized that the job of the School Board is to hold the superintendent and division staff accountable for its failures.
McDermid said the School Board is supposed to answer to the people and give vision and direction to the superintendent, but in ACPS that dynamic is flipped. “We have a weak and ineffective board who is failing to provide oversight of the superintendent, and the superintendent has inverted that relationship and is essentially dictating budget policy and other things to the School Board,” she said. “The board is not listening to the people, that is the key issue. And even if you change the superintendent, you still will have the same problem unless you change the board.”
Kudos to Field
Crozet’s Field School provided crucial support in agreeing to host the forum, and new Head of School Bo Perriello said it’s important to have a place where the community can gather and hear from those looking to serve. “Field School has a long tradition of opening its doors for community events and we were happy to do so for this forum,” he said. “While recognizing that varying points of view were on display, so was the communal spirit of Crozet’s tight knit community as ideological rivals greeted each other warmly and remained gracious and respectful throughout the evening. Field School will continue to look for ways to bring Crozet together on our campus as we celebrate the 100th year of this historic building serving as a school.”