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New Superintendent Hosts Q&A

Karen Garza speaks at Sunrise Valley Elementary School.

— New Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza visited with parents and teachers at Sunrise Valley Elementary School Monday, Oct. 28, as part of her listening tour around the county.

Garza, who was previously superintendent of the Lubbock Independent School District in Texas, was named as replacement for retiring superintendent Jack Dale in April.

“So far, I’ve only visited 44 different schools out of the 196 in the county, I’ve got a lot more to go, but what I see I’m very impressed with,” she said. “I’m so impressed with our principals, they’re some of the best I’ve worked with. … I’m also seeing great work in the classroom from very dedicated teachers.

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New Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza speaks to parents and teachers at Sunrise Valley Elementary School Monday, Oct. 28.

Those things, coupled with the great support from our community is the essential recipe for success.”

She said Fairfax County is poised to tackle some of the most pressing issues in education as a whole, and the key to that will be laying out a long range plan, which includes her “Portrait of a Graduate” exercise.

“What do we want our students to know and be able to do when they graduate? We have to find out what skills they need to learn, and find out if what we’re doing is toward that end,” she said. “By the end of the school year, we’ll commence strategic planning that will use the ‘Portrait of a Graduate’ as a foundation point.”

ONE OF THE MOST PRESSING ISSUES Garza is facing is the budget, specifically how to make up the currently estimated shortfall for fiscal year 2015.

“If I had to, tomorrow, submit a budget to the board for approval, with no changes in salaries for teachers, no new program improvements, but to shore the gap for the next school year, we would be short $140.7 million,” she said. “In order to cover that deficit, we would need an 8 percent increase in the transfer [from the board of supervisors].”

In comparison to years past, she said there is more than $110 million of shortfall due to the school system receiving less money from the state (almost $21 million less), as well as increased student population growth and rising health insurance costs, among others.

While many came to the meeting anxious to hear the truth behind rumors of massive cuts, Garza was careful to point that no plan has been officially proposed to the school board.

“What we’ve been looking at is a menu of what our choices could be,” she said. “If we continue to cut, what worries school board members and myself, is that the Fairfax public schools we know and love today won’t be the same schools,” she said. “We’re looking at everything, everything is on the table, including a 10 percent cut across the board at Gatehouse [Fairfax County Public School headquarters].”

Stuart Gibson, former school board representative for the Hunter Mill District and current substitute teacher, says he worries about cuts affecting already overworked teachers.

“The notion to eliminate certain administrative positions doesn’t mean the work goes away. If you’re concerned about teacher workload, you’ve got to be concerned about the moving administrative tasks down to teachers,” he said. “Under Virginia law, the superintendent is required to present a budget to the school board that reflects the needs of the system. If the needs of the system are greater that the anticipated revenue, then we don’t start by presenting a budget that cuts at the very beginning.”

GRACE SEBO, parent of two elementary school students, says she would be in favor of an increased transfer from the county, even if it came at the expense of other services.

“I think the schools are the absolute foundation on which the county is built on. They’re a selling point to people who want to come live and work here, people who will be moving into houses near the new Metro, people who will move their businesses here,” she said. “I agree with what Superintendent Garza said about looking at everything and finding ways to save money, but bottom line, schools should come first.”