Janet Oleszek has been a teacher, parent, lobbyist and Congressional staffer, so she feels qualified to represent the students and parents of Fairfax County. She is seeking one of three at-large seats on the county’s 12-member School Board.
“I have experience in most every aspect of public education in Fairfax. I have been a leader for parents’ voices for years,” Oleszek said.
Frank Blechman has seen Oleszek's dedication to the school system played out through her volunteerism on other people's campaigns, namely School Board member Catherine Belter's and one-time Fairfax County Council of PTAs president Rosemary Lynch's bids for Senate seats. He said people were impressed with her commitment and passion for school issues, they were urging her to make a run for the School Board.
"I had the opportunity to watch her early on in her campaign and working with all kinds of folks," Blechman said. "When she is with a group of kids, she lights up. She relates to youth."
OLESZEK HAS RISEN through the ranks of the PTA organizations, beginning with joining her sons’ — both graduates of Robinson Secondary — schools’ organizations, then serving on the legislation committee of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs and finally as the legislative chair for the Virginia PTA. She has also served on several school-system advisory committees.
“As soon as I joined the PTA, I knew there was a great need for parents to be involved in the schools. But there are too many parents that work full-time jobs, so they can’t even if they wanted to,” Oleszek said. “As I moved up the PTA leader, I became interested in policy and funding.”
After joining the state PTA, she began lobbying in Richmond on a nearly daily basis during the session, advocating for parents, she said.
“Lynn [Terhar, fellow at-large candidate] and Janet both coming from the PTA, support and participate our schools. Both are involved with working with campaigns and educational issues,” Barbara Allen, president, Fairfax Education Association. “Both are familiar with funding issues.”
The budget is one of the key issues Oleszek sees facing the school system. She believes the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires a 100 percent pass rate among all students by 2014, will be a future drain on school funding that will make school systems “pick and choose what they will fund.” Oleszek said her experience in the state PTA can help ensure the county school system can receive the resources it needs.
"I'm familiar with the state process, which will be critical with NCLB. It requires an awful lot of funding for special needs," Oleszek said. "I can see it unconsciously costing teachers' their salaries."
THROUGH HER WORK with the Virginia Organizing Project, Oleszek has been lobbying for a statewide tax restructuring.
“It worries me that the income-tax rate is so unfair,” Oleszek said. “So that families earning $20,000 pay the same [tax] rate as those making $200,000.”
She is also a member of ProFairfax, a group trying to have more state revenue filter the county’s way to help offset the rising taxes and to pay for public services.
“The businesses … will start leaving, the schools will get less and less and we’ll be relegated to the once great Fairfax County,” Oleszek said. “Teachers are starting to leave because Loudoun County will match their salary. It happened to my neighbor after she earned her teaching degree. Loudoun matched Fairfax’s salary and guaranteed a class with 14 students, as a first-year teacher.”
She also said with tax restructuring, new revenue sources would make more money available to lower class sizes and increase teachers’ salaries.
Blechman describes Oleszek as a good listener and someone who cares about the students. He said she likes to dive in and be hands on with people.
"It's easy to dismiss her as a policy wonk because she reads a lot, but she's not like that," Blechman said.