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Schools Experience Highs and Lows

Still Challenges Ahead

Over the past 12 months, Fairfax County Public Schools learned the system either lost or will lose three key personnel including the superintendent. Controversies arose over auditor reports. The first charter school application failed. And the make up of the School Board became less diverse as a result of elections in November.

The school system added more gifted and talented centers and more schools at the elementary-school level; lowered class size; created a formula that would add assistant principals; added more full-day kindergarten classes. Overall, students achieved higher on the SATs and higher numbers passed the Standards of Learning (SOLs) tests.

Looking ahead to 2004, the school system still faces many challenges.

Students will be required to pass the SOLs to receive a diploma. The schools must continue to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind act. The school board will be faced with replacing the superintendent; and creating a budget that serves the needs of an expanding and increasingly diverse school system at a time when the state and county are experiencing financial deficits.

THE YEAR BEGAN with a series of boundary meetings to garner community input on the boundaries for four new elementary schools and six new gifted and talented centers.

The news that a particular school was proposed to gain a center was not always met with enthusiasm. In some cases, parents did not want their students leaving an existing center to attend a new one. Others feared that adding a center to an elementary school would cause other programs at the school to suffer. Others worried that the new centers would create overcrowding situations in schools that already had trailers. In all, the school system planned to open six new centers — the new Andrew Chapel site, the new Lorton Station site, Clearview in Herndon, Mosby Woods in Fairfax, Oak Hill in Herndon, and Riverside in Mount Vernon. The School Board approved the new centers and their boundaries in March.

At that same meeting, the School Board approved the boundaries for four new elementary schools set to open in September, 2004: the Andrew Chapel site in Vienna, which would become Colvin Run; the Lorton Station site in Lorton, which would retain the name Lorton Station; the Island Creek site in the Alexandria area, also retaining the Island Creek name; and the Centreville site, renamed Colin Powell.

ALSO IN THE BEGINNING of the year, Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech released a $1.6 billion budget, which drew criticism from one of the teacher’s groups for rising administrative costs. Fairfax County Federation of Teachers claimed that $20 million are spent on non-school-based personnel. The federation officials said, based on the school-system's budget, the administration has jumped from 466 positions in 1997-98 to 671 in 2001-02. The group specifically singled out the increase in the leadership team, directors and coordinators, instructional specialists, business specialists and technical specialists. They said that while the administration has been growing, so has the school system's student-to-teacher ratio, making it the highest in the metropolitan area.

School-system officials said the positions questioned were not administration and in many cases reflected a reclassification of jobs, not increased personnel.

AS FAR AS the actual budget was concerned, the School Board headed off much of the traditional back-and-forth between the board and the county Board of Supervisors by trimming the budget on its own in February, reducing the gap

between the two bodies to just over $11 million.

In May, the School Board adopted its $1.6 billion fiscal year 2004 budget, which managed to include measures aimed at eliminating classes with 30 or more students. The budget also added back four of six Head Start classrooms that were originally cut; included a 2 percent market-scale adjustment for all employees and a step increase for all eligible employees; added a step 18 for support employees; increased teacher salaries by an additional 1 percent; and added two staff development days.

In a related measure, the school system found a way to increase the number of full-day kindergarten classes offered throughout the school system. The approved final FY 2003 budget review in July provided $2 million in funds to create full-day kindergarten classes in eight elementary schools: Belle View Elementary in Mount Vernon, Braddock Elementary in Annandale, Bren Mar Park Elementary in the Alexandria area, Brookfield Elementary in Chantilly, Bush Hill Elementary in the Alexandria area, McNair Elementary in Herndon, Mosby Woods Elementary in Fairfax and Saratoga Elementary in Springfield.

It was discovered that the school system could receive an additional $1.4 million in state funds simply by creating more all-day kindergarten classrooms. The funding, which is based on a pupil-to-teacher ratio formula, is essentially reduced by 15 percent for school systems that do not offer all-day kindergarten. The net cost of the expansion will be about $608,020 the first year. The annual cost of maintaining the program will be cut in half because some of the funds are for one-time, start-up expenditures such as equipment and materials, and facilities.

DISSATISFIED WITH THE WAY the school system was educating their children, PACE, Parents for Autistic Children's Education, decided to take advantage of a new state law requiring school systems to develop a policy for accepting charter school applications. The nonprofit group spent the year working on a proposal that would create the school system's first charter school teaching children with autism using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, better known as ABA.

Ultimately, the proposal failed, mostly due to concerns over its viability, but it did spur the School Board to direct school system personnel to create its own proposal for offering the ABA program.

In December, the School Board approved $68,000 for the ABA initiative, which includes the short-term services of an ABA expert. In addition, the board authorized the school system to request a waiver from the state, which would allow a 10-to-1 teacher-to-student ratio in the proposed ABA classes.

The school system’s proposal, if approved, would be available to all students whose parents opt for the program; however, therapeutic services, such as speech, offered under the school system's current autism program would not be included in the ABA classes. The projected cost for the program is $35,000, plus salaries and benefits.

"The top story in terms of academic issues, the rejection of the PACE charter school and the decision to do what we rejected for three years," said former School Board member Christian Braunlich (Lee).

A RECORD AMOUNT of snowfall over the winter forced the school system to re-evaluate its snow days policy. Overall, the school system missed 10 days because of snow, half of which were forgiven by the state. The school system’s calendar only had three snow days built in, forcing the board to decide how best to make up the remaining days. The decision was made, midst the protest of students, to increase the school day by 30 minutes between April 21-May 16 rather than extend the school year.

The decision received mixed reviews and had the board mulling over future schedule changes. In December, the board approved the 2004-05 calendars, which include more built-in snow days that will be returned at the end of the year as vacation days if they are not used.

ALSO RECEIVING MIXED REVIEWS were the five reports issued by independent consultant, Gibson Consulting Group out of Texas, particularly the one pertaining to special education, which was characterized by critics as using incorrect information, failing to provide benchmarks and over-estimating potential savings. In some cases, the suggestions made by the Gibson Group were either already adopted by the school system or in the process of being implemented. Other suggestions, such as closing 15 of 21 special-education centers, were deemed not appropriate for the Fairfax community. The school system spent $265,000 on the five reports.

THE SCHOOL SYSTEM ALSO experienced three key losses in personnel over the past 12 months. Deputy Superintendent Alan Leis, who had been with the school system for more than 30 years left in April after accepting the job of schools superintendent of the Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Illinois. Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent for instructional services, was elevated to chief academic officer after Leis’ departure was announced, the deputy superintendent position was eliminated in an ongoing administrative restructuring. However, Sprague, who had been with Fairfax County schools since 1990, died suddenly October 30.

"Nancy's death really had a profound effect," School Board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill). "Someone once said, Nancy forgets more about instruction in one day than most people know in a lifetime."

Then in December, Domenech announced his retirement, effective this upcoming March. Domenech, in his sixth year as superintendent, will be returning to New York to serve as senior vice president of urban markets for McGraw-Hill Education, a textbook and educational materials company.

The School Board is expected to take up the task of selecting a new superintendent beginning Jan. 12 at a work session to discuss a request for proposal to conduct a search for a new superintendent. A tentative schedule has the School Board, along with a consultant, interviewing potential candidates beginning July with a final decision being made by December. There has been no word as to who will fill the position temporarily. Brad Draeger, assistant superintendent of human resources, in the meantime has been named chief academic officer on an interim basis.

"Right now the new board will have to be looking for a new superintendent," said former School Board member Isis Castro (Mount Vernon). "With the death of Nancy Sprague and the new leadership ...  it’s going to be interesting to watch."

IN ADDITION, the School Board lost six members as a result of the November elections. Christian Braunlich (Lee) and Mychele Brickner (At large) did not seek re-election to the board and pursued other political offices instead. Isis Castro (Mount Vernon), Ernestine Heastie (Providence) and Robert Frye (At large) opted to retire from public office altogether. Rita Thompson (At large), who was elected in 1999, lost her bid to retain her seat in a closely contested at-large race that propelled Ilryong Moon onto the board for a second term.

"For the most part, there are some strong individuals with educational backgrounds on the board now," said Tessie Wilson (Braddock). "They're ready to hit the ground running. And there are some strong personalities. I think there will be clashes among the Democrats."

Joining Moon are incumbents Cathy Belter (Springfield), Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill), L. Kaye Kory (Mason), Jane Strauss (Dranesville), Kathy Smith (Sully), Tessie Wilson (Braddock), and newcomers Brad Center (Lee), Steve Hunt (At large), Phil Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence), Janet Oleszek (At large), and Daniel Storck (Mount Vernon). The new board will hold its first meeting Jan. 8. Besides only one minority member, Moon, the board is reduced to only two Republican-endorsed members, Wilson and Hunt.