Dranesville School Board representative Jane Strauss of McLean has filed organizational papers to seek her third full term on Fairfax County’s elected School Board, which was established in 1995.
She has formed two committees, one for McLean and Great Falls and the other in Herndon.
Those three areas, divided by Route 7, form Dranesville District.
Before that, when School Board representatives were appointed by supervisors, Strauss was appointed to an at-large position by then board chairman Audrey Moore, a Democrat, in 1991.
After Tom Davis defeated Moore, Strauss retained the position until 1993.
She stayed off the School Board for two years and ran in 1995, winning the Dranesville District seat on the first elected School Board after Stuart Mendelsohn decided to run for supervisor, and won.
She had Republican opponents in both 1995, Tom Land of Great Falls, who dropped out before the election, and 1999, when she defeated Issam Saliba of McLean.
This year, with the final deadline impending, no one has yet declared to run against Strauss.
Although she runs as a Democrat, Strauss eschews partisanship, saying she liked to run “a little more of a nonpartisan campaign that is really based on kids in schools.
“My views tend to be moderate; slightly right of center,” Strauss said. “I do believe in a well-rounded curriculum for all the kids. Parents want good basic instruction, but they also want [courses in] foreign languages, arts, high-level science and math, and extracurricular activities such as the Cappies (theater awards organized by her husband, Bill Strauss), drama and music.
“They want their kids to be thinkers and inventors, as well they should.
“For parents in Dranesville, class size is a major concern. I was very pleased with the budget” this year, Strauss said. “We were able to give the teachers a better pay increase, plus decrease class size,” she said.
“Certainly, teachers can do a better job when they have time to give each child their due. With higher [academic] standards that all children must meet, the teachers must be given the opportunity to teach and children the chance to learn,” she said.
Strauss has just completed a contentious two-year process of siting a new elementary school to serve residents of Great Falls, McLean and Vienna, and establishing its population. The school will open in September.
And although disgruntled parents in Great Falls muttered threats they would field a candidate against her, it may be that the reality of the job dampened their enthusiasm, Strauss said.
“I think the overriding issues were simply where the kids were going to go to school. But property values and traffic issues also were, and continue to be, a concern,” Strauss said.
“Some are still unhappy and not persuaded” that the School Board was “resolving overcrowding and making changes in the best way we could,” she said. “What is hardest is when you have new families who have bought large homes believing there would never be any changes in their schools.”
Several parents who live on north Seneca Road or in Fox Run subdivision, when asked to comment on Strauss’s bid for re-election, declined.
Jeff Grieco, who organized the Great Falls Concerned Citizens Association to research other sites and influence the outcome, said the experience “left a bad taste in our mouths in regard to the school siting decision.
But parents have come together and agreed to support the new school and [its] PTA,” he said.
“That was reflected in the fund-raiser at the Grange,” held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Great Falls Elementary School.
Half the proceeds were donated to the PTA now being formed at Colvin Run Elementary, which will open this fall.
Grieco, a Republican who is now managing Dave Hunt’s run for the 32nd District seat in the Virginia Senate, said Strauss, a Democrat, said that “while Janie’s intentions may have been good, the process by which she and the [Fairfax County Public Schools] facilities planning staff undertook the new school siting process was disappointing to parents.”
STRAUSS has a different perspective. “As a result of siting the school and the boundary process, people have come to realize how much time it takes to do this job,” she said, estimating she spends from 20 to 60 hours per week for the School Board members' salary of $12,000. Strauss holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University.
“I think the requirements of the job slowed some folks down,” she said. “In some cases, people have looked at school board service as a stepping stone to other offices.
“But it is a pretty tough stepping stone. There may be another way to enter political service that is less arduous,” said Strauss. “You have to really, really, like schools and children’s issues” to serve on the School Board, Strauss said.
“You have to care deeply about these kids, or the contentiousness would get to you.
“Party affiliations really don’t make any difference. You have resources that have to be used in the most efficient way.
“I would hope that maybe the people feel I serve their children well.”
Will she follow the lead of at-large School Board member Mychele Brickner, or Board of Supervisors chairman Kate Hanley, and run for higher office?
That’s unlikely, said Strauss, who named high school graduates from Fairfax County who died in the war in Iraq when she spoke on Memorial Day at McLean High School. “A lot of people encourage me. But I find in this job, you have to care deeply about the issues that you work with. I get really excited about kids and schools.
“I am more than willing to keep looking for better solutions for our children. I don’t mind the long hours and the meetings and contentiousness of the debate.
“I don’t know if I could muster the same passion for some of the issues a supervisor or Congressman has to debate.
“I still enjoy going in and meeting the kindergartners,” Strauss said.
AT LEAST two groups of parents who want to organize or build private schools in McLean and Great Falls are running into the same obstacles Strauss and the Fairfax County School Board face: the absence of a large enough parcel of land, and the sheer expense of what little is available.
“Schools are labor-intensive institutions, whether public or private,” Strauss said.
“A good school hires the best teachers and has the smallest class size it can.” That, she says, is expensive, whether the sponsor is the public school system, a group of individuals or a religious organization.
CERTAINLY, CONTENTIOUSNESS dominated the debate over Colvin Run Elementary School for two years or more, and some parents are still unhappy.
But others have accepted unpopular new assignments and taken Strauss’ suggestion that they get involved in parent-teacher organizations at their newly assigned schools, Strauss said.
She said she began discussing the “the issue of whether to build, where to build, and then [drawing] boundaries” in the mid-1990s, “as we began to watch the population grow.
“The process has been long and arduous,” she said. “In the end, I was pleased with the process, the meetings and the discussion.
“I was gratified that as many people were willing [to come] out to help us find consensus, which I think we did.
“Certainly, we certainly continued to hold meetings, as many as people wanted, wherever they wanted to meet. We are still working on transportation and bus routes,” Strauss said.
In deciding boundaries for Great Falls, “We had to make a decision, and you had to have one that was simply the fairest for everyone.
"You couldn’t walk away from that situation by giving into everyone’s initial demands, or you would not resolve the boundaries. The politics were not going to solve that.
“That was a lesson learned for everybody. You have to come back to your most basic principles.
“The public schools don’t have a bottomless well of money and resources. While we advocate for what our children need, we have to make the best use of what we ultimately get. Consequently, you then have to stretch your resources.”
There were those who insisted the School Board “just buy a large tract of land in Great Falls, when we have no money and no land.
“You couldn’t just play fast and loose. We don’t make deals under the table,” Strauss said. “You can’t unfairly take money away from another community that also needs a new school.
“We are a public school system, and we make the best use of what we have.”
STRAUSS SAID the School Board has no active plans to sell or dispose of land it owns at Pensive Lane in Great Falls and on Georgetown Pike an Kimberwicke Drive in McLean.
The School Board has asked a consultant how it can best use its property, Strauss said.
“We have a very large Request for Proposals (RFP) out, where we have hired a consultant to look at how we can either trade or sell our old properties to gain 72 classrooms that we need inside the Beltway,” said Strauss.
“In the process, we assume we will be giving up old elementary schools for offices, and looking for a long-term lease” for space that allows the School Board to consolidate offices.
“We are waiting for results of the RFP before making decisions on other land,” said Strauss.
All three sites present difficult issues about size, access and drainage, including a site at Kimberwicke Drive that has a high water table and limited access. And parkland available there is hilly, Strauss said, mounting obstacles for those who have suggested it as the potential use for soccer fields.
“At Pensive Lane [in Great Falls], the property is small, it is embedded in the community, and the back slope has poor drainage,” she said.
The acreage known as the Dead Run site, near St. John’s Episcopal Church, also has poor access and a high water table.
“We have no active plans to use any of these properties, but the public is welcome to hike, picnic, and enjoy the woods,” Strauss said.