|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.|
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.
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 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.