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 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.