The Connection lightly edited questions and answers for clarity and brevity. To view the Zoom sessions, visit https://www.fairfaxnaacp.org/upcoming-events/ and search the candidate forum.
Equity related to boundaries: Will you support redistricting to allow students to attend schools in their communities? Will you commit to a good faith effort to adjust the proximity-based school boundaries plan with a timeline or with a timeline for fruition?
Paul Thomas-Yes, I will commit to good faith discussions about this. I’ve worked for Oakton School District, and that’s crazy. It is a big long broken finger, lengthy as well. We have these problems where these districts have been sort of gerrymandered to ensure that people who have sort of similar economic backgrounds are in school with each other. We need to look at these for the ones that could be more centered around community.
Melanie Meren-The boundaries will get adjusted when there is an effective boundary policy. It is the board's responsibility to set the policy. The prior board did a study, but the study basically said the results of what makes for a good boundary policy. It did not help the board decide what a good boundary policy is. That's the work on this next board. It is not equitable for some students to be able to walk to school and others to take a bus an hour away. It is not equitable that some middle and high schools are crowded while others remain not.
Libraries and access to books: Virginia PTA is considering a resolution next Saturday that would give tremendous power to parents who deemed certain materials as quote, sexually explicit. This policy could exclude books like Toni Morrison's “Beloved,” and a great deal of intersectional literature representing BIPOC people and the LGBTQ+ community. How would you protect FCPS school against this real threat, especially in the light of this resolution that very well may pass?
Melanie Meren- I'm doing this work right now. I don't have to imagine what I would do because I am doing it, and I have done it. When these critics started coming to our school board meetings and later turned up dressed in masks and costumes with signs, I went back to the policy. I read that, and I worked it, and I made sure it was airtight. My colleagues and I ensured that policy and regulation were airtight governance. The governor said we had to develop a sexually explicit materials policy to notify parents. I worked with my colleagues on the governance team to have that policy in effect by January as per the law.
Paul Thomas- It’s critical that we defend our librarians and our teachers. We need to trust that our librarians know how to select and curate the library selections and the teachers and assistants know how to contextualize and frame them. The first thing is to talk with legal experts and figure out what is it that we need to do in terms of the policies and anything we need to push more in the county or the state, defend our ability to enable our teachers and our librarians to do what they know is right.
Every student deserves a safe learning environment to learn and grow in peace. Can you share creative ideas for how to keep our students safe in school?
Paul Thomas- The first thing for me is a set of recommendations developed by the National Council for school counselors, school psychologists, elementary school principals, and secondary school principals. They framed up recommendations for a safe school. A lot of it is about staffing, collaboration, communication, and focusing on that mental and emotional health, that when we have students who are more healthy, more completely healthy, that can help quite a bit. Yes, do we have to have safe schools with appropriate locks on doors and ensure that we have the officers in there that they are really boxed into focusing on safety? But we also need to focus on the mental and emotional health of everybody in our school.
Melanie Meren- I worked for two years to get into the budget implementing security vestibules in our schools that don't have them, to provide another layer of support to the tune of $5 million per project. But I also don't want to harden our schools, and I know that you (Fairfax NAACP) have been such a voice in our school resource officer conversation. I'm eager for the board to address that because it is vital. I know the data about it disproportionately impacting students of color and mental and emotional health.
The state needs to fund us at the appropriate levels- 250 students to one counselor is what the industry field proposes. The state still doesn't fund us at this level, but we keep advocating for it. Students will feel safe when they feel respected when they have space to learn.