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Op-Ed: FCPS Has a Credibility Problem

Michele Menapace, a parent advocate, questions some of the school board's budget decisions

In testimony to the Fairfax County School Board on May 15, I expressed concern that our school system has a serious credibility problem. Yes, it's easy to dismiss such a comment as out-of-touch or not consistent with the remarkable successes of our students and teachers. But ask yourself ...

Do you think it's credible to approve a monitoring report (from the Department of Communications and Community Outreach) that asserts FCPS has 100% fulfillment on FOIA requests? On March 22, I asked for the details of Undelivered Orders for 2010 and 2011 to see why FCPS is spending more than 2% of its operating budget on purchases in the final two months of the fiscal year. I have sent three followups and, as of May 15, don't have that information to include in my testimony. At least three different staff members and one school board member have been included in my FOIA communications. Maybe I’m not objective, but such year-end spending sprees look like a "use it or lose it" mentality.

Does FCPS have a credibility problem when at least five high school principals are asking to spend more than a quarter-million dollars in mid-June to buy surveillance cameras while claiming they are engaging all stakeholders in their communities? Have these schools made efforts to communicate with speakers of other languages or those who are not digitally connected? I cannot find any evidence of it.  

Do YOU think it's credible that Hayfield Secondary is planning to spend $54,000 on cameras instead of on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports' best practices, which were one of only two goals included in its Schoolwide Improvement Plan? A copy of the Hayfield SS 2011-12 School Improvement Plan can be downloaded from here.  

Do YOU think it’s credible when FCPS hires a restorative justice coordinator and has PBIS staffing and program expenditures while also committing more than $40,000 of operating funds this year on cameras that serve no purpose in intervention & restoration practices?

How credible is FCPS's claim of "providing students essential life skills to lead responsible, respectful & fulfilling lives" when cameras are more a priority than efforts aimed at prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and restoration?

Do YOU think it's credible when the superintendent states in an InSight interview (view the full interview here: http://www.fcps.edu/dss/videos.shtml) that restorative justice efforts are employed when students are returning to school AFTER being suspended ... when the PURPOSE of restorative justice is to prevent suspensions?

Do YOU think it's credible when the school board sets aside $400,000 this year to provide educational supports for students on suspension and then it's not spent? AND access to any out-of-school support is limited by the superintendent only to students awaiting expulsion hearings? That’s credible?

Is it credible for the school board to say they value parents and community engagement and then give no active consideration to the work of the advisory committees established for exactly that purpose? So much time and effort is wasted by dozens of community volunteers as they labor to prepare annual reports to the school board, only to have those documents refuted or dismissed by "staff responses" and never reviewed again by our elected representatives.  Is the school board credible to suggest that Parent Liaisons are critical to engaging minority and limited-English-speaking families ... and then not valuing their efforts enough to even consider benefits for them until this budget?

How credible are FCPS requests for school "needs" when they have hired the Disney Institute to conduct leadership training for $50,000 — $25,000 per day, $1,000 or more per participant? The Disney brand is associated with the ultimate in customer care and satisfaction. What, exactly, is FCPS planning to do with $50,000 in training within a culture that is so dismissive of community dissent or disagreement?

Is your credibility limit strained by learning about an FCPS contract awarded to a paid election campaign consultant? In February, three days after posting the request for proposal, FCPS awarded a $35,000 contract to Arcasun, a newly-formed company owned and operated by Shaista Keating. (Ms. Keating was paid $10,000 to advise Jane Strauss’ election campaign last fall and also heads the group Fairfax Full Day Kindergarten. Fairfax FDK is an advocacy group that publicly supported school board candidates in favor of full-day kindergarten in all Fairfax County elementary schools.) Arcasun has no previous experience and its Fairfax County business license had not been issued when the contract was awarded.  

How credible are FCPS requests for foreign-language instruction when they are considering adding Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) staffing at Rose Hill Elementary, which already has language immersion, when best practices say immersive instruction is the right way to go? Why has FCPS installed both FLES and language immersion instruction at Kent Gardens Elementary? This is a credible use of language instruction funding?

Taken individually, each of these examples is pretty small potatoes in a $2.4 billion budget, yes. But taken all together, these examples — and they are only SOME of the examples I’ve found — add up to a big credibility problem. Please go back and listen to the discussion among the Board of Supervisors at the end of the April 10 budget hearings. You’ll hear their concerns about FCPS leadership's credibility.

The School Board has an opportunity to improve FCPS's credibility by ensuring it's not spending money at cross purposes. The School Board can improve FCPS's credibility by putting money where their words are. Restore credibility with objective, honest and open evalution of programs & services; with meaningful, ongoing, two-way communication with parents; with funding allocations that are tied to industry best practices and not FCPS’s definition of "best practice." Restore credibility with us, the Fairfax community, because our $1.6 billion has bought it.

Michele Menapace
Alexandria

Michele Menapace is the Communications Director of Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform, a member of the editorial board of the Fairfax Education Coalition, and the past president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. The views expressed here are her own.

Greg Brandon May 17, 2012 at 01:29 PM
I'm deeply troubled by the non-credible FCPS leadership -- "incredible" does not adequately connote the egregiousness of Michele's list. I would add to her list the self-serving submissions for awards and recognitions issued by various educational associations, many of which have and have had direct ties to FCPS personnel. Not only is there often a direct fee associated with the application for the awards but there are indirect costs associated with staff time spent on completing the applications. So . . . Is it credible that FCPS has excess staff to devote to awards "management?" Is our cafeteria food worthy of awards? Are our budget documents worthy of awards? No and No! But, wait! I have a solution for restoring credibility to our "award-winning" and "world-class" school system: It is the Education Criteria for Performance Excellence which is part of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, http://www.nist.gov/baldrige/enter/education.cfm. "The Criteria help education organizations achieve and sustain the highest national levels of: student learning outcomes; customer satisfaction and engagement; product and service outcomes, and process efficiency; workforce satisfaction and engagement; budgetary, financial, and market results; [and] social responsibility." As Montgomery County Public School system (2010 Baldrige award winner) discovered about ten years ago, the Baldrige process is not easy. It requires real introspection and honesty.
Greg Brandon May 17, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Wait a gosh darn minute. School board campaign consultant? $35,000 FCPS contract? Vendor without a business license? World-class or third-world?
Bob May 17, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Democratic leadership at its best and most expensive. In their mind, doing right by the "kids" is doing right by themselves in terms of greater and greater administrative spending. Don't like it? Start electing a more bi-partisan school board and board of supervisors. I guarantee with a more even split, you'll have more people in power asking the types of excellent questions you pose here. Thanks for a great editorial.
Michele Menapace May 18, 2012 at 12:39 AM
I could not agree more with Greg's solution in the Baldridge Performance program. Just reading the MoCo schools' budget was an amazing experience--honest assessment, alignment of resources clearly tied to performance and meaningful outcomes, no excuses, acknowledgment of shortfalls. In short, transparent and accountable. Thank you, Greg, for reminding us of this.
Julie May 24, 2012 at 07:11 PM
"FCPS RIFS 22 ACE Employees and Numerous Contractors of Numerous ACE Classes!" May 25th: Tonight the school board is recognizing the swell work of the ADULT AND COMMUNITY EDUCATION [ACE] department of the FCPS. However, compared to previous years, IT WILL ONLY TAKE THEM HALF AS LONG to do this because: Only half of the employees still have their jobs effective July 1st! "Why will only half of the ACE employees remain employed, what about the other half?" you might ask... The answer is that only about half of the adult education classes will continue to be offered... "How can there be only half of the classes offered?" you might ask next... Oh, somewhere it was determined that "Restructuring" a program is a convenient way to chop out services to the creative and motivated residents in Fairfax County who like to spend money and learn. What do you mean, "Restructuring?" Well, doesn't that have a nicer ring to it than publicizing Fairfax County Schools are RIFFING?! "Reductions in Force" "FCPS RIF 22 ACE Employees & Numerous Contractors & Numerous Classes!" Unfortunately there was more written here, like the losses to the employees and their families, losses to the community at large, losses for continued productive and creative residents in Fairfax, but there's not enough space to tell all. RIF:(

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