Sharp differences and words erupted during a forum this week with the school board candidates running for the Dranesville school board seat — incumbent Jane Strauss and challenger Louise Epstein, a long-time parent advocate.
The two clashed most directly over how the school board should allocate teachers between the schools in the richest part of the county and the rest of the county. Epstein also had sharp words about Strauss' 18-year tenure on the board.
"This year you have a choice between two very different candidates," Epstein told the crowd of nearly 100 gathered in The Grange, the meeting hall in Great Falls.
The Fairfax County School Board allocates teachers based on a needs formula. That formula starts with 26.25 students per elementary school classroom. Then, the board calculates the percentage of students at the school who are eligible for free or reduced lunch and English as a Second Language classes.
Every school in the county, including McLean's elementary schools, have children receiving free or reduced lunches. Fairfax County now has a majority of minority students in the schools.
Epstein disagrees with the formula saying that it leads to larger elementary classes in areas like McLean. Strauss supports the formula because the school system must educate all of its children in order to maintain its standing as one of the premier school districts in the country.
Would you change the funding formula?
Epstein: "You do need to look at putting a cap on those class sizes. ... You can't be in a situation where some of our children are shouldering the burden of large classes for the county."
Strauss: "I do support a weighted formula where students who are poor and have disabilities are given" more teachers. "If we have schools that fail, we all fail."
"I do believe that some schools need more resources," but she also said, "I think I can fix things in the next budget year."
What would you do to make classes smaller in Dranesville schools?
Strauss: "I believe I can make a dramatic change in Dranesville without harming children in other parts of the county."
"I do intend to allocate specific school dollars to bringing down class size," said Strauss, who is president of the school board this year.
Epstein: "Is this something that will last after Nov. 8" Election Day?
Strauss said elementary school classes in Great Falls now averaged in the low 20's.
Epstein said they had grown larger.
Virginia also gives Fairfax County money to reduce class sizes in 32 elementary schools where more than 30 percent of the students receive free meals, explained Kristen Michael, who often explained the schools budget to citizens.
Over the past five years, the school population has grown by 7.6 percent. The percentage of students receiving free lunches has increased to 40 percent, she said.
In this fiscal year, 45,000 students, 25 percent of the county's nearly 180,000 students are eligible for free lunches, she said. That's one of out four, and growing.
At the end of the Great Falls forum Epstein said, "I'm running to change the way our school board does business. Our area has not had an advocate on the school board for years." She attacked Strauss at several points in the forum.
Strauss never returned the attacks. Strauss said at the end, "Good schools take hard work — through good and hard budget times. We have to prepare our children for a global environment. They need to be able to work across cultures... The business community is counting on us to create a system that attracts businesses."