Karen Keys-Gamarra admits now that she was not entirely sure what to expect when she first joined the Fairfax County School Board as an at-large member in September 2017.
She compares the experience to having a first child: all of the preparation in the world still somehow pales next to the demands, responsibilities, and hopefully, rewards of the actual task.
“Mentally, I was prepared to work, but...I don’t think the average person anticipates what level of services is really required to address the needs of 188,000 students,” Keys-Gamarra said.
What has kept Keys-Gamarra focused during her two eventful years on the school board are her commitments to supporting Fairfax County Public Schools staff and making education more accessible, which were among the priorities that she pushed when campaigning in 2017.
While she believes the school board has made progress in both areas since she took office, Keys-Gamarra has no intentions of declaring her mission accomplished, instead contemplating what more she could do with a full term on the board as she seeks reelection on Nov. 5.
“Continual improvement is always the goal, right?” Keys-Gamarra said. “So, while we do some wonderful things in Fairfax County, and we have our kids leaving Fairfax County schools and going to the best schools in the nation and even in the world, I’m always looking for ways to improve our experience for all of our students.”
A family law attorney and former Fairfax County planning commissioner, Keys-Gamarra had a background of working with Fairfax County schools prior to her school board election.
She came into contact with FCPS in both her professional life, where she advocates for children dealing with abuse, neglect, and custody challenges as a court-appointed guardian ad litem, and her personal life as the mother of three children who have all graduated from the county’s public school system.
After falling less than 200 votes short of nabbing the Fairfax County School Board’s Sully seat over the district’s current representative, Thomas Wilson, in 2015, Keys-Gamarra saw another opportunity to get directly involved with the board when former at-large member Jeanette Hough vacated her seat on May 31, 2017.
Hough’s resignation necessitated a countywide special election that attracted four candidates including Keys-Gamarra, who ultimately won in a landslide on Aug. 29, 2017 with almost twice as many votes as her closest opponent.
She was formally sworn into office on Sept. 14, 2017, joining Ilryong Moon and Ryan McElveen as the board’s at-large representatives.
When voters go to the polls this Election Day, however, Keys-Gamarra will be the only current school board at-large member on the ballot.
Moon sought another term but withdrew his candidacy in August in accordance with the Fairfax County Democratic Committee’s rules after failing to secure an endorsement from the group in May. McElveen relinquished his seat in a bid for Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman, though he lost the Democratic primary for that position in June to Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay.
Instead, Keys-Gamarra shares an FCDC-endorsed ticket with FCPS human resources advisory committee co-chair Abrar Omeish and special education advocate Rachna Sizemore Heizer.
The Fairfax County Republican Committee has endorsed information technology professional and Indo-American Center executive director Vinson Palathingal, former U.S. Department of Education employee Cheryl Buford, and FCPS parent Priscilla DeStefano.
All school board candidates run and appear on the ballot as independents, though they can accept endorsements.
When interviewed during her initial school board campaign in August 2017, Keys-Gamarra told the Fairfax County Times that, if elected, one of her top objectives would be to ensure FCPS faculty and staff feel valued.
She has not wavered from that goal, calling the school board’s moves to improve employee pay its top accomplishment during her tenure so far.
Nearly 90 percent of the $3 billion budget that the school board adopted on May 23 for Fiscal Year 2020 was devoted to employee compensation, including $55.2 million for new teacher salary scales with a 1 percent market scale adjustment and funds to increase the living wage for hourly staff to $15.50.
The preceding year saw the board adopt a Fiscal Year 2019 budget with an additional $53.1 million to enhance teacher salaries, $43.9 million for a step increase for all eligible employees, and $13.4 million to increase funding for employees’ health insurance.
In addition to supporting the focus on employee compensation in both budgets, Keys-Gamarra says she has made an effort to let school staff know that she is always open to listening to their concerns.
“I’ve worked very closely with as many employees as possible,” Keys-Gamarra said. “I have employees that come and talk to me anonymously, because I want them to feel protected…and it is important to have enhanced communication with our staff members.”
Enhancing communication with the public remains an ongoing goal for Keys-Gamarra, whose priority as a member of the school board’s governance committee has been advocating for the board to make its procedures easier to understand.
The need for clarity has become evident, as polarizing issues, such as school name changes and the FCPS boundary adjustment policy, crop up in the Luther Jackson Middle School auditorium where the board holds its regular meetings and on the campaign trail.
At the center of those particular debates is the One Fairfax policy that the school board adopted on November 2017, committing members to considering racial and social equity issues when making decisions.
While many see it as meaningful for an increasingly diverse school system that is still grappling with achievement and opportunity gaps, others have criticized the resolution as an exercise in “social engineering” that distracts from academics and overrides the parents’ rights.
A revised boundary adjustment policy proposed by FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand at a July 22 school board work session prompted fears of a large-scale boundary overhaul and the use of practices like bussing to distribute students based on their race or other socioeconomic factors, perceptions that persist despite board members’ attempts to explain their intentions for seeking a policy update.
Though she took office just two months before its adoption, Keys-Gamarra, the school board’s only black member, is a firm supporter of One Fairfax as a reminder to take a comprehensive view of the school district’s needs.
“It is a community that we’re dealing with,” Keys-Gamarra said. “It is not just a silo of a particular classroom or a particular part of our county. We are all interrelated, and that’s what One Fairfax means to me.”
Underlying all of her work on the school board is a desire to remove barriers and improve access to education for all students, Keys-Gamarra says.
Though Fairfax County is generally affluent, 31 percent of its public school system’s student population is economically disadvantaged, according to the Virginia Department of Education, which applies the descriptor to students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are eligible for Medicaid, or are a migrant or experiencing homelessness.
FCPS also now has a majority-minority student populace with a quarter of enrollees identifying as Hispanic and nearly one-fifth as Asian. Almost 30 percent of students are English learners, and 14.5 percent of students have disabilities.
While priding itself on the diversity of the community that it serves, FCPS still struggles in some ways to create an environment that genuinely supports and includes all students, a failing that manifests in a number of ways, from racial disparities in test passing rates to a discipline system that disproportionately targets students of color and students with disabilities.
Raising concerns about Advanced Academic Programs access for historically underrepresented populations, Keys-Gamarra proposed at a board meeting on Dec. 20, 2018 that FCPS get an external review of its elementary and middle school AAPs to see how policies and practices could be reformed to address inequities.
She anticipates the board will receive a report on the review by the end of the current academic year, but in the meantime, she says some schools are exploring ways to teach students advanced academics skills, such as critical thinking and capstone projects, at an earlier age, before they are evaluated for AAP.
“They’re learning to love learning, which I think is really what should be happening,” Keys-Gamarra said. “It bodes well for them to go into their educational career with that level of excitement of, ‘What am I going to discover today?’”
Keys-Gamarra says she is proud of the work she has done so far to address the needs of FCPS staff, inequities in access and opportunity, and other issues that she raised when campaigning two years ago. She hopes to win reelection so she can continue those efforts.
“I feel like I kept my promise,” she said. “…What I feel good about is that I said that I was concerned about things, and I hit the ground running working on those issues.”