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Tyler Pieron, Shirley StewartThe Rivanna District seat on the Fluvanna County School Board came up for grabs when current Board member Carol Carr decided not to run for re-election.

In order to give readers a comprehensive look at the two candidates, Tyler Pieron and Shirley Stewart, the Fluvanna Review asked them to answer the same questions asked last week of Columbia District candidates Andrew Pullen and Linda Staiger.

Voters in the Rivanna District will choose between Stewart and Pieron Nov. 7.

Tell us about yourself: where you grew up, your education, family and how long you’ve lived in Fluvanna.
Pieron: While I have always called Virginia home, my parents worked for the State Department, so we lived around the world, spending time in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. I spent my early years in various elementary schools both in Virginia when my parents were assigned to Washington, D.C., and the rest at American schools sponsored by the Embassy in places like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

I attended high school at Mills Godwin in Henrico and then served in the military, where I earned a B.S. in information systems management from the University of Maryland University College. I later earned a Master’s in cybersecurity policy and am currently working on a Ph.D. in information assurance after receiving a scholarship and sabbatical from the director of national intelligence.
My wife, Claire, and I have three children and have always loved the area, so when I retired from the Army after getting hurt in Iraq, we chose a home near Zion Crossroads and later moved to Lake Monticello to be closer to her mother. We have been part of the Lake community for over a decade, with our children attending pre-school here along with taking part in sports and other activities.

Stewart: Born and raised in Rhode Island, I moved north after high school and received my bachelor’s degree and elementary teaching certification from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt. After three years of teaching in a multi-age classroom in Randolph, Vt., I earned a Master’s in Education from Harvard University, and returned to Randolph as a teacher and principal in rural schools, where I remained for over 30 years.

My husband, Alan, is a retired teacher and coach, and together we moved to Fluvanna in 2011. Our children attended the public schools where Alan and I worked, and have successful careers in Pittsburgh, New York City, and San Francisco. My mother, Fran Sadler, resides with us.

What three words best describe you?
Stewart: Collaborative, dedicated and perceptive.
Pieron: Compassionate, motivated and determined.

Before your candidacy, how many School Board meetings did you attend?
Pieron: I have been following School Board activities ever since I helped my good friend Brian Phillips, who I served with as a special agent with the Army Criminal Investigation Command, was elected to the Rivanna District seat in 2009. Prior to running, I met with or talked to several of the current School Board members to identify what they believed were the primary issues and what they proposed to solve them.

Stewart: None, although I planned with the past superintendent and School Board chair for two different yearly education sessions for the Fluvanna Leadership Development Program. Since you decided to run, have you attended any School Board meetings? If not, why not? If you have, why?
Stewart: Since announcing my candidacy in May, I have attended all monthly School Board meetings, plus two Board seminars. I attended these meetings to learn about the issues that our schools are facing, how the administrative team works with the Board and staff, and the dynamics of the current Fluvanna School Board. It is my goal to join the Board as a knowledgeable and fully engaged member.

Pieron: I decided not to attend School Board meetings since announcing because I have found that there is little value to spending time at a meeting where decisions are being made based on documents that the audience does not have access to. As anyone who has attended School Board meetings knows, there are usually only a few members of the public in attendance, but I believe in transparency and openness of government, and if elected, would push to use technology to stream the meetings online and on public access TV with the documents readily available to the public. While it is important to hear what is said, it is more important to know what is actually done, which is why I have been an avid reader of Perrie Johnson’s very informative blog for several years, as well as reading all the documents made available on the School Board website.

Being an effective School Board member requires time and energy. What family, work, church and community commitments do you currently have?
Pieron: As a parent of three kids who are involved in sports, music and church, along with homework and other demands, time management is an essential skill. I work for the federal government and volunteer as a reserve deputy sheriff, along with being a member of a number of civic and veterans’ groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Fraternal Order of Police. Being involved in these and my children’s groups, I am always talking to other parents and seeing things from their perspective, which I have found to be extremely enlightening. If elected, I will have more than just time and energy to serve on the Board, I will bring a fresh perspective as well.

Stewart: As a retired educator, I try to maintain a balance between work, family, and community engagement. I work part-time for the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, supervising student teachers in Albemarle County, Charlottesville and Fluvanna. This work requires a greater commitment in the fall semester than during the rest of the year. I partner with my husband to support three elderly parents and volunteer for the Solicitation and Contracts Committee at Lake Monticello.

Homework has been in the news lately. Do you have a position on homework? If so, what is it? What role should a School Board play when it comes to homework assignments?
Stewart: I believe that meaningful homework plays an important role in a student’s education, giving each student a sense of responsibility and independence. Issues between home and school arise when communication about homework expectations is not clear. As a School Board member, I would expect that the superintendent ensure each school sets clear, age appropriate homework expectations and clear lines of communication between students, parents, and teachers to minimize issues.

Pieron: I strongly believe teachers want the best for their students and should have the autonomy to manage class activities. As with any subject, there are a variety of approaches that are equally valid, but I am of the opinion that all kids should have some homework based on their grade level and cognitive capabilities. The current School Board policy identifies that homework, among other things, should have a valid purpose and excessive homework, as well as no homework, should be avoided. A general rule of thumb is 10 minutes per grade, so for instance, my second grader reads for 20 minutes, while my sixth grader would have 60 minutes of various subjects.

I would like to see the School Board policies for homework expanded to formalize the expectations of homework, including a general range for the frequency and duration of homework by grade, but keeping it as a guide. We are lucky to have some great principals and administrators here in Fluvanna, and Superintendent Chuck Winkler is responsible for managing school employees and I do not believe the School Board should micromanage day to day activities. If there is an ongoing issue, I believe he and his staff should have the opportunity to resolve them. However, I also believe that School Board members represent the parents and students of their district, and should be available to help resolve any issues as well.

Do you agree with the current practice that School Board members plan and announce visits to schools in advance or do you think they should be able to drop in unannounced? Why?
Pieron: I strongly disagree with the policy of requiring pre-planned and announced visits. When I served in the military I learned many valuable lessons in leadership, and one of the most important was to endeavor to see things as they actually are, and avoid “dog and pony shows” which present the best and brightest image. When balancing between potentially disrupting the learning environment and being able to accurately assess what is happening in our schools, I will always lean towards openness and transparency.

Stewart: I believe that members of the School Board should be aware of what is going on in the schools, which can be accomplished through periodic visits. I also understand that walking into a teacher’s classroom unannounced will take away from a teacher’s focus on instruction and students. I am supportive of Board members visiting unannounced in a non-intrusive way, such as before or after school, during assemblies or special events. Classroom visits when students are present should be arranged with administrators or directly with teachers ahead of time.

From a federal monitoring standpoint, Standards of Learning test results show economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, students with disabilities, and special education students in Fluvanna have far lower test scores than white and economically advantaged students. What remedies do you propose?
Stewart: It is important that we understand the barriers that are keeping students from being successful and work toward correcting them. Some can be addressed through targeted instruction that will support students with learning challenges, as well as strong, long-term relationships between families and school staff. I believe that a more balanced approach to assessment should be adopted at the state level, one that includes portfolios and project-based learning.

Pieron: The achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students, as well as between black, Hispanic, students with disabilities, and special education students is a significant and persistent concern that is difficult to solve. Research shows, and I agree, that investments in early childhood education for at-risk students, smaller class sizes, and incentivizing teachers to teach hard to staff classes all show promise and should be a continued priority.

How do you make the shift from having things look good to actually implementing programs that make a difference?
Pieron: As a career intelligence officer, I have had the opportunity to serve our nation in a variety of roles, including as a manager of a portfolio of various activities with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars every year. During these assignments, I applied the same life lesson that has served me well, which is that making things look good in the short term usually does not have a long-term benefit. It is critical to plan backwards from the desired objective, set specific measurable goals and measure often, and be willing to understand that there may be short term bumps in the road as you work towards programs that make a difference.

Stewart: It is imperative that our Board, school staff, and community work together with the common goal of building a strong educational system that benefits our county and our residents. This requires listening to a wide variety of constituents with an open mind. I support a collaborative approach to problem solving so we can provide all students with a meaningful education in a cost effective manner.