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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Garza addresses class size, budget shortfall at community meeting

From the left: FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza, Region 2 Assistant Superintendent Fabio Zuluaga, and school board member Patty Reed (Providence). School board member Sandy Evans (Mason) is on the right. 
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza doesn’t support efforts to equalize class sizes throughout the county by shifting resources from high-needs schools, she told a packed house at the last stop on her “listening tour,” March 10, at Falls Church High School.

Garza said she doesn’t foresee the school board supporting a resolution passed by the McLean Citizens Association (MCA) calling for an equalization of class sizes throughout all county schools. That resolution would reduce large classes in some McLean schools by requiring all schools to have average class sizes between 21 and 25 students. Garza did, however say she is “very serious about addressing elementary school class sizes.”

Several people brought up the class size issue at the meeting, with one person noting the resolution “does a grave disservice to children on this side of the county.” Many schools in the Annandale/Mason area receive additional resources because they have large numbers of low-income students and students with limited English skills, and that results in smaller classes in some cases.

School board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville) came to the meeting to address the class size issue, which she said has been getting a lot of discussion in local blogs. “I do not support taking money from high-needs schools and reallocating it to other schools,” she told the audience.

The resolution was drafted by MCA board member Louise Epstein, who is weighing another run for the school board. She ran for the Dranesville seat in 2011, failing to beat Strauss, the incumbent.

Budget shortfall

Much of the discussion focused on the inadequate FCPS budget. The cuts to the school system in the 2016 Fairfax County budget drafted by the county executive, if added to the budget cuts since 2008, amount to $485 million, Garza said. During the same period, enrollment has grown by 20,000 students. Last year, about 730 positions were cut.

For 2017, the school system projects a deficit of $100 million, she said. To close that gap, the Board of Supervisors would have to increase the amount of funds it transfers to FCPS by 7 percent. And that won’t happen, when FCPS is currently “begging for a 3.9 percent transfer.” 

“The budget process with the county must be reflective of our needs,” Garza said. She called upon community members to urge their supervisors to increase the amount of funds transferred to the schools. “These are your schools. Let your voice be heard.”

One of the biggest challenges the school system is dealing with is growth – and the failure of the capital budget to keep pace with enrollment, Garza said. FCPS is now the 10th largest system in the United States and is growing by about 17 students every day.

Compensation is another critical issue for Garza. “The success of our system is dependent on our employees, and we’re losing ground to surrounding systems.”

Falls Church renovation

Several members of the audience spoke about the critical need to renovate Falls Church High School. The school is currently number 45 out of 65 schools on the school system’s flawed “renovation queue.”

Garza agreed. “The renovation of FCHS needs to happen now. We’re committed to getting there as fast as we can,” she said. The school board has scheduled a work session on the renovation queue for March 16.

One parent said the poor condition of FCHS is having a negative impact on the school’s socioeconomic diversity. Higher-income parents are using “pupil placement” to transfer their kids to other schools. “We’re losing a greater number of high-achieving students and the most involved parents. Without human capital, everyone loses,” she said. Another parent asked Garza to get rid of pupil placement altogether.

It was also pointed out that FCHS is the only high school with a center for students with physical disabilities and yet the school is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Someone else said walking into FCHS is like walking into the 1960s, adding that not putting a priority on renovating it means “you don’t value the students and teachers here.”

Despite the poor condition of the building, “Falls Church is a jewel,” another parent said. “Students love being here, the kids are nice here, and that is more important than test scores.” Garza agreed, noting, “this school has a lot to be proud of.”
Parents and community members fill the Falls Church High School cafeteria for the last session of Superintendent Karen Garza's listening tour. School board member Ryan McElveen (at large) and board chair Tamara Derenak-Kaufax (Lee) are in the front row on the left.

Parents speak up

Dozens of parents, community residents, and school employees lined up to present their concerns. Garza only spoke about a few of those issues, but took notes and promised to respond later and to follow up with everyone who submitted comments on index cards.

One parent called for a more consistent policy on snow days, noting that the decisions seem arbitrary. “Snow days are a lot more complex than people think,” Garza said, and those decisions are coordinated with seven county agencies.

Here are some of the other issues presented by members of the audience:
  • There’s too much standardized testing.
  • Parents from other countries need to be encouraged to become more involved in their children’s education.
  • High school students need to be given more information about sexual assaults on college campuses and how they can protect themselves.
  • Don’t eliminate recess.
  • Provide more and better vegetarian school meals.
  • Students with disabilities should have more access to electives and extracurricular activities.
  • Provide better instruction to dyslexic students.
  • Don’t cut benefits for parent liaisons.
  • Implement stronger policies on bullying via social media.
  • A substitute teacher spoke out against “overdigitization,” noting that he would like to see the return of pull-down maps in classrooms.
Garza cited some recent improvements within FCPS:
  • New high school start times will take effect for the start of the next school year.
  • Early Mondays have been eliminated, which means there was enough time built into the schedule so the snow days won’t have to be made up. 
  • More than 80,000 youths, not all of them FCPS students, accessed the crisis hotline, and another Teen Summit will be held, on May 9, focusing on health and well-being.
  • The system was reorganized, with the eight clusters replaced by five regions.


  1. What is "pupil placement transfer?"

    1. When you game the system to attend an out of bounds school, saying that your child needs to take IB classes, any any number of other academic sets of classes.

      The top, most desirable high schools in the county (TJHSST, Langley, Woodson) offer AP over IB, so I don't think that transferring for IB should be a valid reason for pupil placement. I think that FCPS should switch to an all AP format - it is used in the majority of high schools as it is.

    2. In Falls Church's case, it's usually applying for a transfer on the grounds that a student wants to take IB classes at Marshall or Stuart, rather than AP classes at Falls Church,which does not offer IB. Since AP generally is more popular than IB, what you basically get is some people transferring out of Falls Church to Marshall because Marshall just got an expensive renovation and has higher test scores. The preference for IB just becomes the pretext or excuse to transfer out of Falls Church HS. Once Falls Church gets renovated, some of the students who might have transferred would stay at FCHS.

    3. This is when parents apply for their child to go to a different school for a particular reason. In my experience the reasons may be very specific, such as when boundaries are changed, using pupil placement to keep siblings in the same school, or if you have a child with a particular health or mental health issue that may be better addressed by a different school. At the high school level the reasons seem to be more aimed at allowing students to participate in particular programs. My daughter is pupil placed at JEB Stuart, because it is an IB school and she was in the IB program in middle school so we wanted her to finish that (FCHS does not have IB).

      In some ways it makes sense in terms of resources to allow pupil placement so that the different schools don't all have to have all programs and the students and parents can access the resources they need. On the other hand, I understand how it can be a drain on some schools. But as a parent, I am grateful that we have some options to have our children attend schools that will meet their specific needs. On the other hand, perhaps it would be simpler if the IB middle schools funneled into IB high schools directly.

    4. I attended the meeting. The issue with pupil placement was that some students who move away from their area school do not stay in the program they entered in their new school.

      The parent making the statement said that FCPS needs to make sure the students stay in the pupil placement program they enrolled in or they should return to home base. Seems reasonable.

    5. Anonymous 8:35: thank you so much for your insight! I know a bit about pupil placement, but never imagined that a child who exits a program can still stay at their/their parents' chosen school! I call "foul!" I think that pupil placement should be based more on need than preference. Wow.

    6. There are two different issues. One is whether the requirements for pupil placement are stringent enough. The second is whether the requirements are enforced.

      To transfer out of Falls Church HS for IB at Stuart or Marshall, all you have to do is commit to take two pre-IB or IB courses per year. FCPS could tighten the requirements by requiring anyone transferring to an IB program to seek the full IB diploma, which is the supposed goal of the IB curriculum. That would cut back significantly on pupil placements out of FCHS. In addition, FCPS could audit pupil placements and make sure that students who have transferred have actually taken the courses they said they would take to justify the transfer. There obviously is no good reason to allow a student who says they are interested in IB at Marshall or Stuart to stay there if he or she doesn't end up taking IB courses.

  2. I wasn't at the meeting, but if this is all Janie Strauss had to say about the ridiculously large class sizes at schools in the district she was elected to represent, I think she just handed the Dranesville seat on the School Board over to Louise Epstein (or Epstein's designee) this fall.

    1. Of course, it could be that the Annandale Blog didn't cover in depth the statements by a school board member from another district. I didn't go to the meeting either, but you've not just jumped to conclusions, you've catapulted to conclusions.

    2. Fair enough. All we know right now is that Janie Strauss was ready to attend a meeting out of her district to repudiate the contents of a resolution drafted by her former rival. We now have less than eight months to find out whether she's actually in favor of anything to reduce class sizes in her district, or instead just plans to keep telling people how great all the schools in FCPS are.

    3. You clearly don't understand Louise Epstein's proposal: She proposes stealing from the "have-nots" to give to the "haves." It's a disgusting attempt at creating a "wedge" issue, and an example of the very reason people in Dranesville didn't elect her in 2011. Janie Strauss may be far from perfect, but she's at least fair-minded about what PUBLIC education ought to be. And guess what? So are the people in Dranesville, outside a narrow, selfish band of Louise Epstein's fans. Strauss has attempted to set aside a few $million to help lower the highest class sizes in wealthy districts, so she is trying to help... but she's not promising she can do it on the backs of those who struggle with serious disadvantages. I give her points for honesty, at least!

  3. > A substitute teacher spoke out against “overdigitization"

    Haha! Let's all point and laugh at him! He must really want to keep kids dumb! What a Luddite!

    I think it's important we ask the hard questions, like: why isn't every elementary school child already outfitted with Facebook's Oculus Rift? I'm very worried my child is going to grow up not knowing how to properly commodify their social interactions for the benefit of advertisers!

  4. Louise Epstein’s proposal is merely a reflection of what the gang behind the movement to “fully fund" the schools has been advocating for years; i.e. turning the school system into a prep school for the well to do at taxpayer expense. That makes pretty good sense if you live in McLean where the schools are already pretty opulent. Especially considering that the huge tax increase required for funding Epstein’s proposal still wouldn’t cost the bourgeoisie nearly as much as sending their kids to private schools. The trick lies in getting the Board of Supervisors to cash the check the school board writes. However, the school board already covered that last year by passing a resolution demanding independent taxing authority. Sandy Evan signed on to that one and Jessica Swanson proudly advertises that she’s a member of group advocating “fully funding” the schools. So, I’d recommend that Mason residents pay careful attention for whom they vote for during the next election or else they’ll find themselves shelling out even more to educate students in McLean and other already affluent areas of the county.

    1. According to them, they are shelling out wads of cash hand over fist to educate all of OUR district's children, at the very expense of their children thriving! Unfair, they say!

    2. There is nothing opulent about the public schools in McLean. They get renovated in turn, occasionally, but the county hasn't built a new school there in years, unlike in Mason District, where for example Glasgow MS was rebuilt from scratch, at greater expense than a renovation of the existing facility would have cost.

    3. The renovation of Glasgow would have been a pointless waste of money. At the time Glasgow was replaced, it was a nearly 50 year old dilapidated structure with at least 46 mobile classrooms outside the main building. The infrastructure was so antiquated that updating it wouldn't have been cost effective under any circumstances. The fact that it took ten years to replace this anachronism is compelling evidence of the dire school situation in Mason District.

  5. FCHS needs to be renovated ASAP. Its worse than Woodson was before its renovation...I have seen high school after high school get renovated that were no where near the condition Falls Church is/was. The queue system is so unbelievably flawed.

  6. The schools that are getting renovated now in the McLean area are 50 years or older. Langley is 50 years old; Haycock is 61 years old. They had/have multiple trailers. They are getting renovations, not new buildings. FCPS has studied the issue in depth, and renovations cost less than new construction.

    Glasgow, however, got a brand-new building. Bailey's Upper is new space. So is nearby Graham Road ES in Providence. Mason District may have higher-needs students than other districts, but it is not getting short-changed in terms of overall capital spending, and FCPS will be spending even more in Mason relatively soon - whether at the old Williston site or at the Columbia Pike site - nto deal with the high number of students at Glen Forest as well.

    I do agree that the situation at Falls Church HS is a screw-up, but that's a result of a renovation queue methodology that assigned higher priority to crowded schools than under-enrolled schools and Mason's having had School Board members who historically paid more attention to the Stuart pyramid (Kory,Evans, heck - go all the way back to Mary Ann Lecos) than the Falls Church pyramid. It is not because FCPS was building anything "opulent" over in the Dranesville District.

    1. Regarding Glasgow, when my son was in kindergarten at Parklawn they had Glasgow on the books to renovate/rebuild.
      When he was a sophomore in college they actually did your premise that schools in Mason district aren't getting short changed is flawed if Glasgow is one of your "facts" back that premise up

    2. There are many schools in FCPS, so years can pass between a school first is identified as needing renovation and when the renovation actually occurs. It doesn't change the fact that, when Glasgow was replaced with a new building, it was no older (47 years) than many schools that get renovated; it had previously been renovated in the late 1970s FCPS spent more on the new building than it spends to renovate other middle schools; and FCPS has subsequently conceded that it costs more to build new than to renovate.

      There's also Mason Crest ES, which is another new school for Mason District students that is just a few years old. And some of those kids go on to Glasgow (rebuilt) and then Stuart (renovated about a decade ago). Mason District does not get short changed at all in terms of capital expenditures.