Meet the at-large school board candidates

In their own words, at-large candidates for Fairfax County School Board say what motivates them to seek a seat on the board, why they are qualified, and their plans to lift up all students. They made their comments at a recent forum. The FCDC Endorsement Vote is at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Tuesday, May 21, at Lake Braddock Secondary School, 9200 Burke Lake Road, Burke, VA 22015.

Rachna Sizemore Heizer

Rachna Sizemore Heizer / Photos by Photo Editor Karen Kirk.

I come to you as a parent, the only one with a child the only one currently in our schools and both my children having spent their entire education in Fairfax County Schools. I am a Berkeley educated attorney and a college professor. I am the child of immigrants so I know what it means to bridge two cultures while learning to love our great democracy.

I am a longtime community advocate with a track record of getting things done and making real change including a diploma option that will allow tens of thousands of students to have access to college .

I am here because while we really have a great school system, it is fraying at the edges — inconsistencies, burnout, stress, overcrowding, but most importantly, we have a bucket system. Our system is great for those kids that fall into their buckets, but if you’re like my daughter, who was asked to leave her advance program because of her mental health issues, or if you’re like my son, who is a really talented musician, but we have to fight for him to be in music classes because he has autism, we can do better.

I am here because I want a strengths-focused, holistic, high expectations, quality education for every child in every part of our county. I want every child to be seen for what they can do not what they can’t do. There should be consistently high expectations for every child no matter race, religion, LGBTQ, it doesn’t matter .

I want to tell you how I got here. When my son was in second grade, the one with autism, it was the first time he was in a gen ed (general education) classroom, and I went to back-to-school night really excited to see his desk among all the other desks. Instead, I found his seat at the back of the room at a table, and I realized then that he was only seen for all of the things he couldn’t do, for the deficits of who he was and not all of him as a human being. And when that happened, I didn’t just get sick for him. I lobbied Fairfax County. I started the inclusion work group and we recently revised all of the IEP (Individualized Education Program) forms so that no child is left behind in the back of the classroom and every child can be meaningfully included. That is who I am. I bring to you a passion of seeing a problem and fixing it for every child because every child should be seen as equally valued equally human and equally worthy.

I am a  college professor. I know the skills that kids need, which is not just academics, but critical thinking. I’m a former management consultant and former corporate attorney, I worked on multimillion dollar mergers and acquisitions so I have the experience to understand the finances and know how to how to oversee a $3 billion system to insure transparency and consistency. I am also an HR expert. I  teach human resources and diversity cultural competency so I know how to create a positive working environment. I’m an experienced board member. I’m on the community services board. I know the role of the board. I know how to do the oversight. I know how to do consistent work and I bring to you a passionate commitment to see a problem and fix it for everyone.

That commitment comes from a moment in my life 12 years ago. My first husband passed away, and when he was in the hospital I made a promise. I told him his children would be okay, and at that moment I didn’t know what okay meant. I had a 5-year-old son significantly impacted with autism. I had an 8-year-old daughter who was suffering the trauma of losing her father, but I knew I had to keep that promise and 3 months later, when my son’s school told me they would not make room for the kids with autism because they didn’t understand why they needed to be in their community, I said that is not okay and I didn’t just get him back to school 4 years later, I helped Fairfax County change the process by which they  have  open programs for our kids.

When I discovered that black and brown kids like my stepson and kids with disabilities like my son are disproportionately punished in our school, I didn’t just say that’s not okay, I worked on Sharon Bulova’s commission and revised the rules for school resource officers to make sure we had disability awareness and implicit bias training and when I found out that my brilliant Mozart-like musician son could not go to music school because of an issue with our statewide diploma, I said that is not okay and I went to Richmond and in 9 months, I got them to create a path to an alternative so that students like him, tens of thousands in our state, can now access college and federal student aid.

Those are just some of the things I’ve done outside of the school board imagine what I might do if I am lucky enough to be on the school board. Recently I went to Berkeley College of Music to tour it with my son. I never thought we would get there. My son is okay because he has me. I want to be the me for every child who needs it. I want to be the voice for every child who is not seen.

Ilryong Moon


Ilryong Moon

I have been in this room as a school Board member representing 190,000 students and 1.1 million residents for 20 years. I am running for re-election. Thank for your support in the past, but I need your support again through May 21 so that you will be able to see my name on the ballot in November. Vote for me so that I can continue working, hopefully with seven new members, all Democrats, on the next board to continue improving the quality of education in Fairfax County.

I am a little tired this morning (May 11). My second son graduated yesterday with a PhD in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, so I had to fly back this morning. I was very happy seeing my second son accomplish something he likes, especially because between my two sons, he was more challenging. He had some problems with focusing attention. Also he always pushed me to test the limit. So I remember those days as a parent wrestling with decisions with certain situations with my son. Now he’s almost 28,  grown up and mature enough to get a Ph.D.  And I was very proud. (And Moon’s other son graduated this past weekend from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Master’s in Public Policy.)

Seeing him get his Ph.D, I remember my parent who came to the USA  as immigrants. I came to the U.S. at the age of 17. Neither of my parents had much education. They did not speak the language. They didn’t have great jobs. My mom had to work as housekeeper at a hotel, working two full-time jobs and also cleaning private homes on weekends.

That’s how she supported her family and saved money for her children’s education. All three of us went to college. That was my parents’ American dream. Now I have been serving on the school board for 20 years.  The first time I ran for school board, the most important reason was that I wanted to show to myself and my kids and the rest of the world that even the immigrants can serve the public.

Experience matters. Fairfax County Public Schools is a very complex school system with about 27,000 employees, a $3 billion budget and many different programs we are responsible for providing by policy. When we had the great recession in 2008, we had to make a lot of adjustments. I have had to balance the budget. I have done that 20 times.  I have worked with four different school superintendents, dozens of senior staff members, and dozens and dozens of other fellow board members as well.

I am a good listener. I have keen analytical skills, as an attorney who likes to work with numbers. I listen to people first before I come to a judgment on important issues. Different stakeholders, different community groups come to you asking you implement certain things. You cannot say yes to every one of them. You need to be able to listen and engage in conversation, but at the end of the day, you have to balance the needs of all the different stakeholders and make some time very tough decisions, and I have done that for 20 years.

One of the most defining moments of my life as a school board member was 2015, when this room was packed, standing room only, when 95% of people in audience objected to school board passing a modification to a nondiscrimination policy to include transgender students, I supported them. I seconded the motion when they were yelling at me, basically throwing everything at me and questioning my religious beliefs. I stood my ground because I believe in protecting all of our students — providing equal opportunity for all of our student. I am time-tested. I am  battle-tested.

Karen Keys-Gamarra

I was part of that Democratic blue wave in 2017, when we flipped a seat on the school board. Now I can say that I am a battle-tested, proven candidate who ran in 2017 and won with a 2-to-1 margin. At that time, I was endorsed by Congressman Connolly, Fairfax County Chair Sharon Bulova, the Fairfax Education Association and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, and after they’ve watched me work on this board, they have endorsed me again.

I’m also a mother of three boys of African-American and Bolivian descent, and I will tell you how that worries me a little bit later, but now they’re much older. My youngest is 19 and he’s thinking of transferring to either William and Mary or UVA. And In a week and a half, I will be going to my son’s graduation at West Point.

I am an attorney and have worked in private practice representing people in Employment Matters as well as union disputes. I’m a former planning commissioner and I’ve represented hundreds of children’s in very difficult situations —  abuse, neglect, adoption, sometimes even criminal matters. But no matter how difficult those situations have been, this is what I have learned: when I am able to collaborate with family members, teachers and counselors and state agencies to provide services and come up with an educational plan that fits that child, we have set that child on the path to success. And that is where I have focused my work for more than 10 years, and I bring this experience to the board. And I bring those voices to the board.

On the board, I have worked on such things as removing the name of a confederate soldier from one of our high schools and we now have Justice High School. I also have a forum topic pending where the superintendent has been instructed to make sure that we discover ways to make advanced academic opportunities more available to more students. And I have a budget amendment pending to provide more behavior intervention teachers, which will help to improve the special education experience and reduce our disciplinary referrals. And I want you to know that I have been laser-focused on shutting down the school to prison pipeline and building the school to career pipeline.

This is really about our community and since I’ve been on the board, all that law school training about fiduciary responsibility and understanding accountability and understanding that when you sit in that seat, it’s because somebody else trusted you. And I want you to know that I have never, every betrayed that trust.

I have taken every opportunity I can to make sure that I am reaching out to as many people as I can, setting up meetings, hearing and listening because leadership begins with listening. Now I do a lot of work in family law. So I think I have a little skill with conflict. But I also understand that it’s not just about the battle. It’s about having the tough conversations to bring people together and achieve success. So in the year and a half, I have spearheaded a number of initiatives, including keeping our Title I funding for our schools even though our federal government and Betsy DeVos and  Mr. Trump are doing everything to reduce our funding. We need to maintain and support our most vulnerable kids, and I’m fighting to do that.

I see success  all over Fairfax County. I want you to remember that where I come from is dealing with people one-on-one. Dealing with families, collaborating with teachers and professionals and mental health folks, understanding the impact of trauma and how a kid can have difficulty accessing education.

I remember one young lady that had autism and she had been doing very well and had good support in her school but there was something going on at home where she completely changed and through my investigation, we were able to help the family understand what needed to happen. I remember the young man who wanted to read me his poetry but he was a little upset that he had to take SOLs rather than write more.

And finally, I remember the young boy who came home in first grade. He was very curious about what he had learned. And he kept hearing about African-Americans as slaves and one day he came home and said, “Do I have to be a slave when I grow up?” That little boy was my son. And I vowed on that day that I would remove the limitations in this system that caused him to believe that he had a limit. And I do it not just for my own kids but every kid that I come in contact with because once you got a momma’s heart, it cannot be extracted until your dead and so I will fight and have fought to remove the limits. I’ve done quite a bit in a year and a half. I promise you that I will not let you down if you trust me again with your vote because I know that our kids are our most precious resource and I will use all of my might to protect and fight for them.

Abrar Omeish


Abrar Omeish

The most exciting thing to me is the enthusiasm of the kids who have inspired me to do this. When you think about all of us being Democrats, all of us having particular values, believing in equity, believing in justice and thinking about the future we want to build, we all want to make sure that we make the best future possible for these kids. It’s our values and it’s our opportunity now to live up to those values and ensure that that’s done in a proactive way.

I actually wanted to think about a particular case that happened last night when I was with a group of high school students who are really excited. One of them had an emotional moment and just broke down and she started crying because she was overwhelmed and stressed, and this is exactly what this is about for me. This is about the holistic care for that child. Not only the academic and intellectual side.

But when we think about equity, when we think about living up to these values that we all believe in, how do we care for children when we talk about making sure resources are equal throughout the county, when we talk about mental health and ensuring the wellbeing of these kids?

I can’t tell you how many of these young people have told me about the importance of this issue to them. We’re not just educating our children, we’re raising children. That’s what this is really about in my mind and that’s why all of us are here and why all of us are invested in this race.

In addition to mental health, of course, we want to make sure that we support our teachers and our staff. One of my friends was telling me that she works as a cashier at Trader Joe’s rather than working in our schools because she’s paid more at Trader Joe’s.

Those are all things that we can collectively think about. How we want to shape that agenda moving forward. How we want to fight for that kid whose mom was forced to remove them from school because she’s worried about them. How about that kid who is scared, has mental health challenges, is potentially suicidal because they identify differently and they know they may be queer and people bully them for that. How about that kid that looks like me?

What does it mean for me to be before you guys today? That’s what Fairfax County has done for me. It has prepared me for Yale and has allowed me to be here and to serve these kids, and I’m so inspired by them. I don’t want to let them down. We can work on equity together and talk about mental health. We can do all these things together.

We’re Democrats. We believe in these things. It’s easy. We just have to make sure we listen to the community. I have grown up in this community. I’ve been in our schools a I know them inside and out. I have plenty of experience. I started an organization that provided free tutoring and mentorship to kids. It’s been running for the past 10 years.

I care a lot about being proactive to identify the challenges and find them before they become bigger issues. I’m excited about the fact that we have had so much support from the community, whether it’s from the parents, advocates in the community who have been in conversations with us, whether it’s the endorsements of both teachers unions, endorsement of the secretary of education, and various grassroots immigration groups in the community.

I’m really passionate about making sure that we provide that extra push to listen to the community and to bring forth the best and to make the school system that is already amazing, that’s prepared me to be here, even better.

When we look into the eyes of that kid who is counting on us, who believes that there’s a fair chance for them ahead, they are naïve and innocent and have no idea of all the barriers that are there before them. I want to make sure that we fulfill the promise of that kid and not let them down and nurture them to be that next astronaut, the next person to cure cancer, the next person to start an organization to end world hunger.

We’re not just looking out for them to have good grades, to pass those tests. We’re looking to nurture leaders in the future. And this is for the leader in every child.

__Compiled by The Blue View Deputy Editor Karen Kirk

Photo of Abrar Omeish (left), Karen Keys-Gamarra, Rachna Sizemore Heizer and Ilryong Moon was taken at Saturday’s forum for at-large candidates for the Fairfax County School Board. / Photo by Karen Kirk, Deputy Editor of The Blue View.