A petition filed in the Arlington Circuit Court by four parents with students in the Falls Church City School Public Schools, alleging that a late-August revision by the F.C. School Board of a citizens advisory committee policy has unlawfully restricted access of citizens to such groups, has unleashed a veritable firestorm of controversy.
More than 150 postings on the comment thread attached to the story, headlined, “Parents File Petition Vs. F.C. Schools Alleging ‘Unlawful Policy Revisions,” devolved by yesterday morning into a written shouting match involving a handful of opponents and supporters of the Falls Church schools that included two current candidates who are critics of the School Board in the upcoming Nov. 3 election.
According to the petition filed with the court last Thursday, Oct. 1, by School Board candidate Becky Smerdon and three other citizens, the School Board action to revise Policy 5.12 was designed to restrict access to service on advisory committees, in particular the Local Special Education Advisory Committee, or LSEAC.
“Revised policy 5.12,” according to the petition, “dilutes the expertise and focus of the LSEAC by adding new membership classes, denied appointment of otherwise qualified parents of children with disabilities, or individuals with disabilities, who do not have arbitrarily defined ‘skills or background;’ restricts the ability of parents and community members to interact with the CACs, particularly with the LSEAC, by placing burdensome restraints on the conduct of advisory committee members in the performance of their roles and responsibilities, adds to and reprioritizes the listing of LSEAC functions; and imposes restrictive operating procedures which ultimately thwart the purpose of the CACs.”
The citizens who joined Smerdon are Daniel and Kristina Rice and William Royce. Royce has been a very vocal contributor to the comment thread on the News-Press website, as has a second School Board candidate, Alison Kutchma.
The petition, urging the court to order the rescinding of the 5.12 revision, had been preceded by a complaint that Smerdon, the chair of the LSEAC, filed with the local School Board alleging that emails sent by Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones directly to members of the LSEAC was in violation of advisory committee rules, and that she should have communicated solely with Smerdon as the committee chair.
Relevant to that action was the fact that the School Board previously ruled that members of the LSEAC, based on reports of intra-committee behavior, should participate in a Virginia Department of Education training session before embarking on its tasks for the coming year.
School Board chair Justin Castillo, running for re-election in next month’s election, wrote a seven-page single-spaced response on behalf of the School Board to the Smerdon complaint, concluding, “Because the Superintendent’s emails were a lawful and proper part of the School Board’s management and direction of an advisory committee, we find no basis for finding misconduct or imposing discipline.”
He added that, “On September 22, 2015, the School Board, in a roll call vote, unanimously voted to find no grounds for imposing discipline and to authorize the chair to draft this report….No apology or retraction from the Superintendent is warranted. Nor will we bar the Superintendent from communicating with SPEAC members, a step that is unnecessary and probably unlawful.” His report notes that the role of advisory committees is just that, “advisory” to the School Board, only.
He added that “SPEAC which, lilke any other advisory committee, is appointed by the School Board and exists to advise it.” Moreover, “The complaint’s reference to the ‘statutory role’ of the SPEAC suggests that a belief that the regulations grant a SPEAC special powers. This is unfounded: the regulations only require that school divisions establish a SPEAC.”
The two emails from the Superintendent to the SPEAC board members, written at the request of the School Board chair and vice chair, asked committee members to fill out a survey in preparation for a Virginia Department of Education training session, which the Board felt was “necessary because it had received reports that the SPEAC was not functioning well and that this could jeopardize the SPEAC’s ability to advise the School Board,” the Castillo report said.
Concluding, Castillo wrote, “No advisory committee chair should try to prohibit the superintendent (or anyone else) from communicating with committee members. Further, we remind advisory committee chair and committee members that they do not have the authority to supervise FCCPS employees.”
Superintendent Jones told the News-Press Wednesday that one of the emails contained a survey, which she said was included to enhance a training session. She reported that the results of that survey included the fact that six of eight members of the SPEAC committee who responded (out of nine total) did not agree with the proposition that the functioning of the committee in the past year was “positive and productive,” and six out of eight also felt the meetings were not run in a “thoughtful” or “productive” way.
“Getting feedback from the committee last year that members felt uncomfortable, we determined that it needed more support, and we undertook to get the committee back on track,” Jones told the News-Press.
Following the formal School Board response, prepared by Chairman Castillo, to Smerdon’s complaint, the petition was filed with the Arlington Circuit Court last week.
Much of the last days’ extensive comments on the News-Press’ website, which are still accessible, reverted to sweeping allegations and name calling, with Planning Commissioner Andy Rankin identifying himself as a staunch supporter of the School Board’s actions, with Smerdon, Kutchma, Daniel Rice and Bill Royce being the only citizens willing to identify themselves in arguments against the School Board.
Late in the process, Hilary Crockett, a member of the SPEAC, pitched in stating that since Smerdon’s election as the chair of that group at the end of the last school year, “Ms. Smerdon has taken several steps that I believe have created an unhealthy climate for our committee.”
Some of the sharpest comments, in assailing the Schools, came from an anonymous source who would not identify him or herself when asked to. This person accused the School Board and its supporters of having “vested interests,” of a “status quo agenda,” and ironically as an anonymous participant, assailed “nameless critics.”