By Erik Pelton
Last week, Falls Church City Public Schools held its annual celebration of teacher and staff award winners. David Morales, custodian at Thomas Jefferson Elementary and support staff of the year winner, inspired the audience with his talk of attitude, enthusiasm, and love, imploring us to encourage and lift one another. Mr. Morales’ message is working with the students; my third and fifth graders tell me about his smile and singing, infectious attitude, and joy in his work.
By contrast, our community at large in recent weeks has been full of dismay and blame. Recent stories and editorials in the pages of the News-Press have described many parents as “angry;” I think a more appropriate word is “concerned.” Our schools are excellent, replete with students, teachers and staff who are talented and dedicated. Yet many are concerned about the leadership in our schools and the tone of the discussions as we face significant financial challenges, Mt. Daniel’s expansion, an aging high school, and a growing school population.
Over the last month I have attended meetings and spoken with School Board members, school officials, teachers, neighbors, City Council members, and others in our community to try to understand this groundswell of concern. How can our school system produce such good results yet cause palpable concern among so many? The consistent worries I have heard relate to trust, tone, and leadership.
Fact: The schools were told by City Council in a December 8 work session that any funding increase over 3 percent (the projected revenue growth) was unlikely. Concern: The Superintendent and School Board ignored this guidance with their budget proposal, then appeared shocked when City Council did not fully fund the request.
Fact: The school budget was not “cut;” next year’s school budget will be more than $1 million larger than this year’s. The school budget for 2012 (with 2,145 students) was $35.1 million. The 2017 school budget (with 2,534 students) is $47.7 million. Concern: Over the last five years, school funding grew at nearly double the student population growth (35 percent vs. 19 percent); how can it be a crisis that the Council reduced the proposed FY2017 budget growth from 5.4 percent to 3.6 percent?
Fact: Dozens of teachers and three of our four principals are leaving their jobs this year. Concern: Why are so many leaving at once, after we spent several years getting our pay equal to that of neighboring jurisdictions? Will we be able to maintain academic excellence with so many new hires?
Fact: A number of teachers and administrators have said decisions about personnel reductions and curriculum changes are made without sufficient input from them. Concern: The input from those in the classrooms and schools is invaluable, yet many feel restrained in providing feedback to the school administration or feel their perspective is not being heard.
Fact: Interest payments on the bond funding the Mt. Daniel expansion have already begun and are projected to cost approximate $1 million annually. To date, the cost of the Mt. Daniel project exceeds $2.5 million and the project has not yet been approved by Fairfax County. Concern: The execution of the plan to expand Mt. Daniel was rushed and featured minimal input from the City Council and community. Following Fairfax’s delay of the project, the schools have still not conducted sufficient community outreach in the City or the adjoining neighborhoods.
Fact: Transparency used to be greater. Data regarding school spending is difficult to find or nonexistent, and in the last year the School Board has held more than a dozen closed session meetings. Concern: If the schools expect a robust dialogue about budgets and priorities, taxpayers need to know where our money is going and how it compares with prior years.
Fact: Larger crowds have attended and spoke at recent School Board meetings, anxious for a dialogue. Concern: Despite the increase in interest, the administration and School Board leadership do not appear to welcome the interest or seek to further engage the community.
In sum, I have heard people yearning for renewed school leadership that focuses on a climate where questions and diverse opinions are welcomed; transparency in the budget and throughout the administration; support for principals, teachers, and staff to lead the schools from the ground up; greater input from teachers regarding curriculum and other important school functions; greater input from parents regarding budget priorities, facility construction, and other items; and more effective management of money and projects.
While student achievement remains excellent and our teachers and staff are remarkable assets, these concerns cannot be ignored if our schools are going to continue to excel, keep and attract the best teachers, and tackle the tremendous challenges in front of us such as Mt. Daniel and building a new high school.