Editor Judy Le and realtor and former educator Juliana Ko Arsali are vying for the Rivanna District school board seat being vacated by Jason Buyaki.
The two women share a passion for equity and accessibility, and both want to expand school resources and support services, as well as tackle the county’s racial achievement gap.
“In my experience, I’ve seen children thrive when they feel safe and supported. [This] is a way to close the achievement gap.” says Arsali, 33.
Prioritizing social-emotional learning, Arsali seeks to provide easy access to counseling, build empathy into the elementary school curriculum, and expand middle and high school peer advising programs.
Le, 43, wants to better support working parents by expanding the county’s afterschool care program,“which right now has a huge waitlist.”
“People [also] are not being served well by the buses. I would work to make our transportation system serve our families [and] the drivers better,” says Le.
Le’s other priorities include improving services for students with special needs and hiring more diverse teachers.
It’s been an unusually contentious couple years for the Albemarle County School Board, where a movement to ban Confederate and other hate symbols from the district’s dress code led to months-long debate and six arrests. Buyaki, who expressed concerns about the ban, made waves for wearing a Confederate tie to one of the meetings about hate symbols (and for questioning the science of climate change and fossil fuels). He is not seeking re-election.
Both candidates say they will bring a unique perspective to the school board, citing their diverse backgrounds and accomplishments.
After attending college in Illinois, Arsali joined Teach for America and moved to Thoreau, a small town on the edge of the Navajo Nation in western New Mexico, where she taught middle school math for three years.
Her perspective on education completely changed when one of her students committed suicide.
“A lot of my other students were just shaken by it and were questioning what’s the point in learning algebraic equations when they’re going through so much at home,” says Arsali.
She decided to quit teaching and start a nonprofit community center, which offers counseling, tutoring, and afterschool activities in an effort to prevent youth suicide.
“We revitalized an old building [and] partnered with organizations, like the Boys & Girls Club,” says Arsali. “We were able to create a comprehensive program to provide a safe place for the students.”
After serving as the center’s executive director for three years and sitting on the board for several more years, Arsali moved back to her home state of Florida. There, she served on the town of Lantana’s education council, and participated in the Palm Beach County Schools’ task force on black male student achievement.
In 2017, Arsali and her husband, who graduated from the University of Virginia law school, moved to Keswick, and Arsali completed her master’s in educational leadership. She is currently a realtor with Frank Hardy Sotheby’s International Realty. Last October, they welcomed a baby girl.
“A big part of me running is to be a good example for her,” says Arsali. “I’m really driven to make sure that our schools are the best they can be, not just for my daughter but for every child in our system.”
Le also wants to make the school system better for her son, who is a fourth grader at Hollymead Elementary.
“When I saw that there were so many equity gaps in our schools, I realized that it can’t just be someone else doing it,” says Le. “We all have to step up and do what we can.”
A native of Iowa, Le graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. Over the past 24 years, she’s worked in newsrooms as a designer, editor, and reporter. Before moving to Albemarle with her husband in 2015, she worked at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk for 16 years.
She’s currently the managing editor of the University of Virginia’s alumni magazine, director of communications for the UVA Alumni Association, and on the board of the Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle, which teaches adults to read and write in English.
Le says her experience as a first-generation American (her family left Vietnam the day Saigon fell) gives her a different perspective on school issues, and makes her stand out as a candidate.
“I [also] have a child in our system. I understand what it’s like to be a parent of a student here. I’ve also spent more time [and have volunteered] more in our community,” says Le.
Arsali says that her years of experience in education, as well as her master’s in educational leadership, set her apart from Le.
“I’m the only candidate that’s been in the classroom,” says Arsali.
Le has been endorsed by the Albemarle County Democratic Party, Indivisible Charlottesville, the Local Alliance for Urban and Rural Advancement, and several lawmakers. Arsali has not received any official endorsements.
All school board candidates in Virginia run as independents.
Other open seats
In the county school board’s only other contested race, Anne Elizabeth Oliver is challenging incumbent Jonno Alcaro for the at-large seat.
A financial services professional, Alcaro has worked with students on the board’s anti-racism policy (though he initially was reluctant to approve a ban on Confederate imagery, over concern that it violated the First Amendment). He seeks to increase students’ access to resources and learning spaces, as well as their exposure to trade and technical skills.
Oliver, a real estate agent, says students deserve a safe, inclusive environment. In addition to hiring more diverse teachers, Oliver wants to put a bigger emphasis on mental wellness and counseling in schools.
Meanwhile, incumbent White Hall representative David Oberg is seeking re-election and is unopposed, and Ellen Osborne is running unopposed for the Scottsville seat being vacated by Steve Koleszar.