The leap from healthcare administrator and small business owner to candidate for Sully District supervisor was a short one for Srilekha Palle.
The Fairfax resident had worked in the healthcare field for almost 20 years when she underwent a medical procedure that left her exhausted even two months later, despite assurances from a doctor that she would be able to return to work within a week.
Realizing that other people must face similar struggles in recovering from an injury or health issues, Palle started a home health business two years ago that provides caregiving services to elderly and disabled Fairfax County residents.
“If I find a gap, I want to fix it,” Palle said. “I’m not somebody that would just sit back and say whatever.”
Palle hopes to bring that same take-charge attitude to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors as the Republican challenger to Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith.
The importance of local politics has been ingrained in Palle’s mind ever since she was a child knocking on doors and participating as much as she was allowed in other campaign activities for her father, who was involved in politics for the small town where she grew up in south India.
Palle also has a cousin who previously served as a legislator and is now the finance minister for her home state in India.
Despite those family connections, Palle did not contemplate running for office herself until she started volunteering as an enrichment coordinator for the school that her daughter attends in 2016.
As the enrichment coordinator for Navy Elementary School’s parent-teacher organization, Palle oversees and registers students for extracurricular academic competitions, such as math and science Olympiads, the National Geography Challenge, and the National Language Arts League.
Over her years as a volunteer, Palle noticed an imbalance in the students who participated in the school’s enrichment activities, which she says draw a lot of Asian children but not as many black and Latino students.
The disparity in attendance that Palle has observed could stem in part from financial differences, since the enrichment clubs have registration fees ranging from $20 to $50, but she believes it is also a reflection of Fairfax County Public Schools’ inability to close student achievement gaps.
In its annual report presented to the Fairfax County School Board on June 27, the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee found that, based on the pass rates for Standards of Learning reading and math tests, achievement gaps between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers have persisted with minimal progress since 2005.
After starting to close between 2009 and 2012, the gap in average pass rates for the reading SOL test widened in 2013 after the test was revised and has since stalled. The difference in pass rates for the math test has remained roughly the same over the past decade.
“My philosophy is that academic enrichment and academic rigor should be in the schools as part of [the] curriculum, so some kids who are able to afford and go to enrichment activities are not the only kids that are benefiting,” Palle said. “All the kids need to benefit.”
While Palle’s interest in Fairfax County politics was kindled by her investment in the public education system, she ultimately decided to run for supervisor instead of a seat on the school board, because education is not the only issue that matters to her.
A resident of Fairfax for the past 10 years, Palle acquired a master’s of business administration from the Indian School of Business Management before moving to the U.S. to get a doctorate in physical therapy from Boston University.
Palle moved to Fairfax County 15 years ago after four years in Dallas, Texas. Her family, which includes her husband and two children, lived in Alexandria before moving to their current home in Fairfax.
In addition to running her own home health care business, Palle works as an administrator for a major healthcare-oriented company in Northern Virginia, and the combined work experiences have taught her the importance of efficiency.
“I think that’s what is missing in the county,” Palle said. “I think the county has gotten too big, too arrogant, and has this budget that has no measurable goals and outcomes.”
If elected, Palle says she would advocate for more fiscal discipline within Fairfax County’s government by instituting a zero-based budgeting system to require each office and department to justify its spending every period.
She also wants the county to take more steps to increase its commercial tax base while lowering taxes on residents.
Among Palle’s criticisms of Fairfax County’s spending is her opposition to the universal legal representation pilot program that the Board of Supervisors allocated $200,000 to in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.
The result of advocacy by the nonprofits CASA and the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, Fairfax County’s universal representation program will fund legal counsel for county residents facing federal immigration court proceedings and let the nonprofits conduct community workshops to help immigrants understand their legal rights.
Though an immigrant herself, Palle makes clear that she does not support “illegal” immigration.
“The way I look at it is that U.S. military veterans don’t get that kind of money,” Palle said. “I mean, that’s taxpayer-funded money, and if I have to pay taxpayer-funded money, I would rather pay for U.S. citizens or military veterans, before I go to illegal aliens.”
However, Palle says that her number one priority as Sully District’s representative on the Board of Supervisors would be to address traffic congestion, an issue she feels acutely as someone who has to travel extensively throughout the county for work.
Calling for more incentives to encourage the use of transit, telecommuting, and other options to reduce the number of cars on the roads, Palle argues that high-density development has added to Fairfax County’s transportation and infrastructure challenges, negatively affecting the county’s affordability and quality of life for residents.
The anticipated arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington will likely only exacerbate those existing issues, Palle says, as the technology and online commerce corporation plans to bring 25,000 jobs to Virginia in the next 10 years, including 400 new recruits by the end of 2019.
A report released on June 12 by the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis projected a 7 percent jump in real estate prices and a 10.2 percent drop in available homes for sale in Fairfax County at the end of the year, trends attributed to Amazon’s November 2018 announcement of its HQ2 location, according to the Washingtonian.
“I don’t think county has a vision,” Palle said. “It’s like, if you go and ask a county supervisor, I don’t think they’re able to eloquently say…these are the five things that we are putting in place to ensure that we are reacting to what is going to happen in the next five years. I’m not confident, and I would ask every voter if they are confident.”