Debate Over School Budget Continues

Later start times, class size among topics at School Board public hearing.

SLEEP advocates gather at a school board public hearing. The Fairfax County School Board is examining options for later start times, to be implemented in 2015.

SLEEP advocates gather at a school board public hearing. The Fairfax County School Board is examining options for later start times, to be implemented in 2015. Photo by Janelle Germanos.

Later start times, class size, and cuts to needs-based staffing were major themes of the testimony given at the Jan. 27 public hearing on Superintendent Karen Garza’s proposed budget.

Members and representatives of SLEEP in Fairfax, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, Coalition of the Silence, and many other groups spoke at the public hearing.

Several SLEEP advocates at the hearing said that Fairfax County should follow the example of other school systems in the area and adjust middle and high school start times, beginning in Fall 2014.

Catherine Pournelle, an eighth-grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School, said most teenagers only get around seven hours a sleep per night, which leads to several problems while in school.

“I know from experience that this then causes us all to feel drowsy and not pay attention as well during morning classes. It especially becomes hard when homework piles up, causing us all to get to bed later and creating a spiral of sleepiness until the weekend,” Pournelle said. “Overall it does not create a healthy environment for leaning.”

Stuart Orloff, a 10th-grader in Fairfax County Public Schools, agreed. “School is a great idea. Sure there are flaws, but it is an important part of growing up. The problem is, I’m only half awake to experience it. In class, I can hardly focus because I’m trying too hard to stay awake,” Orloff said.

Another concern several speakers have with the budget is the cuts to need-based staffing.

Dr. Lolita Mancheno-Smoak of Coalition of the Silence stressed the importance of closing the achievement gap in Fairfax County, which she said cannot be done with the proposed budget.

“We all accept the premise that education is the great equalizer. However, over the years, we keep seeing budget cuts that weaken the progress towards leveling the playing field for all children,” Mancheno-Smoak said.

Avis Catchings, also of Coalition of the Silence, said that while COTS supports some aspects of the budget, including the decision to pay teachers fairly, she is disappointed with some of its other aspects.

“This is about life choices for COTS kids. When COTS kids fail in school, too often they also fail in life,” Catchings said. “Proposing any cuts to needs-based staffing when the FCPS student population has increased by the thousands, and when most of this growth is in our neediest communities, is just not a good choice. It means larger class sizes in needier schools and fewer teachers to give these children the extra help they need to transition successfully in school.”

Several students also advocated for children who are underrepresented and disadvantaged. Alanna Brown, a ninth-grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School, spoke about the digital divide in Fairfax County.

Brown said she thinks that while digital textbooks are helpful, it is unfair for poorer students who don’t have access to the internet at home.

“Although there are low-income students at Lake Braddock, I don’t believe there are that many, but there are other places like Alexandria and other areas in Virginia that have many more poor students,” Brown said. “Many of these students may not have access to the internet at home, and I don’t believe it is fair that they may get bad grades because they can’t do their homework because they don’t have access to the internet at home.”

Ryley Bendewald, a freshman at Langley High School, believes it is wrong to cut class sizes in one area of Fairfax County, but not in another.

“Every student in Fairfax County, no matter what their facial features, height, family, house size, or academic advancements, deserves the opportunity to learn and to better themselves in the public schools in this county,” Bendewald said.

At the hearing, Steven Greenberg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, praised Garza for her budget proposal.

“Dr. Garza’s budget is the best lemonade anyone could possible make, considering the rotten lemons we’ve been given,” Greenberg said.

However, former school board member Tina Hone, a founder of Coalition of the Silence, said that the organization is struggling with the proposed cuts to need-based staffing.

“Even Jack didn’t cut needs-based staffing,” said Hone of the former Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Dale.