After years of advocating for children and changes in the city school system, running for the Charlottesville School Board is the next step for Christa Bennett.
“For me for the past few years, one of the ways that I have tried to show up for my community is through advocating within the school district,” Bennett said in an interview. “... The way I think about [the School Board] is that it’s another tool in my tool belt for advocating for children.”
Bennett, a parent of two school-age children, is the latest candidate to formally announce plans to run for a seat on the seven-member Charlottesville School Board. Three of the seats are on the ballot this year.
Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres is seeking re-election along with board member Leah Puryear. Current board member Juandiego Wade is not seeking re-election and is instead running for the City Council.
Emily Dooley, a real estate agent and former teacher, announced her campaign for the board last month.
Bennett is the director of partnerships for Strive for College, working with companies and foundations to make nonprofits’ programs free to students. The organization pairs mentors with students from low-income households to help them get to college, graduate and start living wage careers.
She has spoken at School Board meetings against weighing students at school and taking away recess as punishment for students who misbehaved or forgot their homework, among other infractions. The division’s wellness policy changed in 2017 to end the practice of taking away recess and to add provisions about notifying parents that students would be weighed, giving them the ability to opt out.
“So that’s where it started. I was trying to figure out where the policy came from, and the School Board is a policymaking body, and that’s one of the things that interests me most about it,” she said.
More recently, Bennett spearheaded the effort to add a playground at Walker Upper Elementary, which will be built this summer.
“I think that it’s a great example of how you can leverage community resources,” Bennett said of the playground project, adding that she believes tax dollars should have paid for it. “... It wasn’t going to happen, and we’ve been waiting for 30 years for it. The playground is the most cost-effective service for young people in Charlottesville, period.”
If the school is turned into an early childhood center as part of the division’s reconfiguration project, parts of the playground would be moved to lower-income communities.
For Bennett, the top issues facing the school division are equity, transitioning out of the pandemic and funding. Equity affects everything else that the division and School Board do, she said.
Funding issues include paying for the planned reconfiguration of Walker and Buford Middle School.
“So one of the things that I believe I’ll bring to the board is being able to advocate,” she said. “I’d have experience lobbying for policies, and I will be able to advocate for more funding for our schools.”
If elected, Bennett said she would hold weekly listening sessions to hear from community members. She said she wants to help parents to better understand the policies affecting their children and how to influence them.
New board members will have to either work with a new superintendent or help select a new leader for the division as Superintendent Rosa Atkins announced recently that she’s going to retire May 31. Atkins has served in that role for 15 years.
“It’s a big task but the reason I am running is to make it easier for all parents to advocate for their children, and to be part of policymaking decisions is just going to be highlighted further by the superintendent search,” she said. “It’s going to be all the more important that we’re listening to parents, to teachers and other community members about what they would like to see in the superintendent.”