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More Questions Than Answers

Members of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers filtered into a conference room at the Fairview Park Marriott Monday afternoon for the long-awaited meeting between the their association's leadership and the schools superintendent to air differences over the proposed budget.

Many of the teachers left without the answers they were seeking and instead expressed disappointment over Superintendent Daniel Domenech's "cocky and condescending attitude" and "embarrassment" over federation president Judy Johnson's comparison of the superintendent to a popular cable-television mob boss.

As one teacher, who did not want to give her name, said afterwards, "I think it should have been kept on the high road."

In fact, many teachers were willing to express their opinions of the meeting afterwards, but no one wanted to give his or her name.

AT ISSUE is money the federation leadership says is overspent on expanding central administrative staff rather then being used to raise teacher's salaries and lower class size. The superintendent, conversely, has characterized the federation's claims as distorted and out-right lies. Over time, the disagreement between the two has grown into a battle of personal attacks culminating in Johnson's mob boss reference and Domenech's letter informing the federation he has asked staff to "look at options regarding your organization's status with Fairfax County Public Schools to include suspension of the dues deduction privilege that we currently grant your organization."

Monday's meeting did nothing to bridge the gap and left teachers feeling trapped in the middle.

"We talk to our neighbors. The perception is Fairfax County Public Schools' spending is out of control," said one teacher. "We're in competition with, as you pointed out, fire, police and ā€¦ health care. The perception is it's out of control and one example is your salary. The other is spending $50,000 on a sex survey."

Domenech pointed out the so-called "sex" survey, which actually will include a variety of questions regarding risky behaviors including alcohol and drug use, smoking, bullying and sex, is a county initiative and is being paid for by the county. The school system has no control over how the money is spent. As for his salary, "I don't hear fire-fighter groups bad mouthing what their chief makes. I don't hear the police groups bad mouthing what their chief makes," Domenech said. "I only hear it here."

He also said that if his salary was compared to other area superintendents, people would see Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, both in Maryland, pay their superintendents more. He said it was not fair to continually compare his salary to teachers' pay.

THE SUPERINTENDENT disputed each of the federation's claims ranging from class size, teachers' pay compared to other jurisdictions and funding for staff. In many cases, accusing the federation of intentionally distorting information or "leaving out" information to make its point, such as in the case of class size. Domenech said the federation's data is based on teacher-to-student ratios provided in the Metropolitan Area Boards of Education (MABE) guide. He said it was incorrect to use such data to reflect class size and if the federation would have "simply flipped to the next page" it would have seen the correct average class-size figures, which show the county is not the highest in the region.

His style, however, put off the teachers, who said he came off arrogant. Instead, they suggested that if he has all of the appropriate data he should have distributed it and let the teachers decide for themselves.

"I think his attitude was not good. He came off as cocky and condescending," said another teacher. "Unfortunately, this was the first time I've heard him speak and unfortunately, I was not impressed."

Other teachers described Domenech has intimidating and felt his letter was threatening.

JOHNSON, HOWEVER, did not escape criticism either. At one point, she was booed when trying to defend her characterization of Domenech. One teacher said she was embarrassed by the remark and was tempted to walk out of the meeting.

Johnson also failed to get what she called "most important" to her and the membership.

"The question is, does FCFT have the right to ask questions without being threatened? And is the superintendent going to apologize?" Johnson said.

"No, I am not," Domenech replied.

In explaining the federation's decision not to join other school-system employee groups in lobbying efforts in Richmond, Johnson said local General Assembly members advised the group to remain independent. In all, the Fairfax County Public Schools has at least six employee associations which advocate on behalf of their members and the school system as a whole.

"We were told certain school officials were not popular in Richmond and we'd be better off lobbying without them," she said.