Ryan McElveen is perfectly fine, proud even to be described as “a school board member who has antagonized supervisors he now seeks to lead.”
Those are the exact words used by The Washington Post editorial board to explain its skepticism of the Fairfax County School Board at-large member’s campaign to chair the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
The national newspaper endorsed Jeff McKay in a statement published on May 21, arguing that the Lee District supervisor’s experience makes him the best of the four candidates vying to be the county board’s chairman.
McElveen says he was baffled by the criticism, since he believes he is a collaborative person, but he suggests that it reflects his dedication to advocating for Fairfax County Public Schools and its employees, even when that means ruffling the feathers of county leaders.
“I think that’s been who I have been on the school board,” McElveen said. “I’ve always been agitating for a better education system, and that’s what I would bring to the Board of Supervisors.”
Standing out has never been a challenge for McElveen, who became Fairfax County’s youngest-ever school board member when he first took his seat at age 25 in January 2012.
Born and raised in Tysons Corner, McElveen developed a passion for advocacy while attending Marshall High School, where he campaigned to get stall doors restored in men’s restrooms after they were removed as part of the county’s anti-drug efforts.
McElveen then had two experiences in his senior year of high school that have shaped his life ever since.
The first was that he served as class president. The second was his complete loss of body hair due to a condition called alopecia universalis, a rare disease that the National Institutes of Health believes could result for an issue that causes the immune system to attack hair follicles.
McElveen says he initially wore a wig to cover up his newfound baldness, but while in college, he realized that he was hiding part of his identity.
“If I wanted to truly be myself and stand up for the things I believed in, I had to embrace my baldness, so that’s what I did,” McElveen said.
After getting a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a concentration in East Asian studies at the University of Virginia, McElveen started studying for a master’s of international affairs in human rights at Columbia University.
He briefly moved to China to work at the UVA Center in Shanghai. That is also where he first met the woman who later became his wife after she moved to the U.S. for graduate school.
In addition to serving on the Fairfax County School Board for eight years, McElveen is the associate director of The Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center.
He previously worked for the Boeing Company, Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Clinton Foundation, and the China Institute.
McElveen says his international experience, especially with China, could be beneficial to his chairman bid given Fairfax County’s increasingly diverse population and its proximity to Washington, D.C.
“That has really taught me how to bridge cultures,” McElveen said. “…It has given me a perspective that none of the other candidates have.”
Looking back over his two terms on the Fairfax County School Board, McElveen says he is pleased by the progress he and fellow board members have made in areas like student health and the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in FCPS’s non-discrimination policy.
Among the actions that McElveen points to as accomplishments are the school board’s Oct. 23, 2014 approval of later start times for high schools so that students could get more sleep and new funding for fresh fruit and vegetable stations.
The effort to bring healthier food to schools was one of McElveen’s first moves as a new school board member. Introduced with a pilot at Marshall High School in 2012, fruit and vegetable stations have now spread to all middle and high schools, and they will be in all schools by 2021.
Even with those accomplishments, though, McElveen admits that Fairfax County has not made as much progress as he would like on some issues.
For instance, he remains disappointed that limited funding preempted FCPS from expanding world language classes to all elementary schools as expected when the board approved full-day Mondays in 2014, and he wishes more could be done to address facilities needs.
Despite the elimination of nearly 200 units in the past five years, FCPS still uses more than 750 temporary classrooms to accommodate capacity demands, and many schools have exceeded the school board’s ideal 20 to 25-year renovation cycle, according to the FCPS Capital Improvement Program for Fiscal Years 2020 to 2024.
McElveen decided to run for Board of Supervisors chairman instead of seeking another term on the school board in part because he hopes to advocate for more county funding for a universal pre-kindergarten program, support services for English-as-a-second-language, immigrant, and special-education students, and other needs related to education but outside the school board’s control.
“There are so many groups that whose issues are not being adequately addressed,” McElveen said. “It’s not that the school system isn't prioritizing those issues, because we are, through needs-based funding. It’s just that the funding only goes so far.”
However, the top priority in McElveen’s mind is climate change.
A supporter of the proposed Virginia Green New Deal, McElveen believes Fairfax County needs to convert to entirely renewable energy sources by 2050, and he has supported the school board’s recent efforts to bring solar energy to local schools.
The school board approved a pilot program to add solar panels on three FCPS buildings on Jan. 24, and 159 school buildings are expected to be included on a request for proposals that will be submitted by Fairfax County as it seeks power purchase agreement bids, according to The Blue View.
McElveen says that, if elected as chairman of the Board of Supervisors, he would continue the county’s ongoing environmental sustainability efforts, including an Office of Environment and Energy funded by the county’s adopted FY 2020 budget and the Joint Environmental Task Force created in April by supervisors and school board.
“I think the JET is off to a good start, and I'm looking forward to seeing their climate and energy plans,” McElveen said. “I think we have to invest more in personnel at the county and the school level in that field.”