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Student safety, teacher salaries hot topics at Prince William School Board Chair debate | #schoolsaftey

Rist, Lateef, Mehlman-Orozco

Dr. Kim Mehlman-Orozco came out swinging against Prince William County School Board Chairman At-Large Dr. Babur Lateef during the first, and so far, only debate in the race to lead Virginia’s second-largest school division.

The author and research scientist who has appeared on the Fox News Channel proved to be a tool for the Prince William Education Association, which is engaged in collective bargaining with the school division for higher teacher pay. Throughout the hour-and-a-half debate, Mehlman-Orozco demanded teachers be paid more and offered little opinion or insight into the other questions posed to all three candidates.

“The number one way to make teachers happy is to vote Dr. Lateef out of office. The teachers union does not support him,” said Mehlman-Orozco.

Lateef voted with most other Democrats on the school board to usher in collective bargaining into the school division in 2022 after the county’s teachers’ union applied pressure. After the vote, the school division developed a policy governing how it would allow the teachers union to bargain for higher salaries, effectively replacing the decades-old “meet and confer” process that allowed department heads to meet with the superintendent to share staff concerns.

Lateef, an ophthalmologist with offices in Woodbridge and Manassas, has been on the school board since 2018. He has approved teacher salary increases nearly every year since he’s been on the board to help the public school division compete with other Northern Virginia localities in retaining teachers and attracting new educators.

“No one has been able to deliver the raises I have,” said Lateef. “We have work to do to keep up with the pay scales of other Northern Virginia jurisdictions. Collective bargaining is an ongoing effort. It’s not done.”

In 2022, the average Prince William County teacher salary was $73,250. According to the Virginia Department of Education, Fairfax County teachers make $79,700, Manassas teachers make $72,000, and Stafford County teachers make $55,000.

When asked about the school division’s overcrowded student population and what to do about it, and whether or not the Prince William school board did the right thing by ignoring Gov. Youngkin’s newly-issued model policies about notifying parents if a child wants to be called by a different pronoun, Mehlman-Orozco evaded the questions and turned the attention back to teachers salaries.

“I’m not going to sit here and BS an answer and try to make my way through it,” said Mehlman-Orozco.

Carrie Rist is running to unseat Lateef with the Republican Party endorsement. Like other local GOP candidates this election cycle, the former school teacher turned homemaker focused on public safety. The violent crime rate has risen 70% in Prince William County since 2019.

Rist hammered Lateef over student bullying and multiple incidents of guns and other weapons found in schools over the past two years, which she said creates a culture of fear for teachers and leads to more student distractions.

“There should be no tolerance for those making threats in schools and for those finding weapons in schools,” said Rist. “Let’s protect our schools like we protect our banks.”

Rist said she’ll fund a police officer (school resource officer) in each county’s public schools. Today, 24 of the county’s 95 schools have police officers assigned to them.

Last year, the school board used leftover federal coronavirus funds to hire security guards. The school division is installing Evolve metal detectors at middle and high schools. The high-capacity metal detectors detect guns and are commonly used at concert venues and stadiums.

“The Evolve system was just purchased. We’re implementing them as they go; it is just one solution of many. We had town halls last year on security. The safety stats are concerning, but out of 100 schools and 90,000 students, we’ve done a good job keeping students safe,” said Lateef.

Rist hammered the school board for ignoring the governor’s new model policies requiring schools to notify parents if their child aims to change their gender.

“Parents have to be part of the process. This is a hard topic. We need more dialogue and less political decisions,” said Rist, who added girls shouldn’t compete with boys on the sports playing field.

“It’s wrong to expect girls to compete with biological boys. We can’t destroy countless girls’ dreams in the name of politics,” said Rist.

Lateef defended the school system, saying it complies with state and federal law and has a process to have counselors work with parents of children who say they want a sex change. He said he’ll continue to focus on student success, improving school buildings, and increasing teacher pay.

The Prince William Committee of 100 hosted the event online via Zoom. Prince William Times Publisher Scott Elliot and Managing Editor Jill Palermo moderated the debate.

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