From Falls Church City Hall to the offices of the Falls Church City Public School System, the official City leadership and many citizen activists were reeling Tuesday night at the cumulative impact of three major figures announcing their departures.
On the first day of the new school year Tuesday, it was reported that School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones was voted onto and accepted a position as superintendent of the Fairfield, Connecticut school system, effective December 5. Fairfield news organizations blasted the news as soon as the vote of the school board there was taken and it quickly spread to Falls Church.
The news also circulated in the Little City Tuesday that the City’s Chief Financial officer Richard LaCondre is leaving as of November 1, and that the Falls Church School System (FCCPS) legal counsel and 20-year George Mason High School coach and athletic director Tom Horn is leaving at the end of this month.
Employees of the FCCPS awoke to an email from Dr. Jones announcing the impending move Wednesday morning. She wrote, in part, “I know this e-mail comes at an awkward time, just after the first day of school. I want you to hear it from me that I will be leaving Falls Church in early December to start a new position with another phenomenal school division.”
Jones told the News-Press in a phone interview Wednesday that she applied for the position last spring and it was the only one she sought.
The timing of the announcement came just a day after a column airing a local parent activist’s criticisms of Jones leadership was published by education columnist Jay Mathews in the Washington Post that unleashed a furor of over 100 comments by local citizens, some anonymous and some signed, some opposing and some favoring Jones.
The column revisited the rising criticism of Jones by some beginning last spring, led by Melissa Dana, who began showing up in force at School Board meetings, forming an activist group they called “The Falls Church Way,” and most recently demanding with the start of the new school year more scrutiny by the School Board in its annual evaluation of the superintendent.
Jones’ leadership role introducing a “Personal Learning Technological Initiative,” involving the widespread use of computer tablets in the classroom, was the subject of discontent by some parents. They also complained that Jones’ leadership style was too “top down” and causing morale problems among some teachers. The Mathews article noted that Dana wrote more than 2,100 emails to 145 separate FCCPS email accounts and had pressed for more than 20 meetings with school staff in the spring and that Jones cautioned her “because we are careful to protect student privacy and data.”
Nonetheless, the Mathews article was led by a provocative headline, “Is This Volunteer Parent an Enemy Spy? A School District Treats Her Like One.”
Jones told the News-Press that she was “disappointed” by the column, saying she’d provided Mathews with “clarifying information” that he did not include.
“If the same situation were to happen again I’d do the same thing.” she said. “Teachers and their principals were reporting that they were being made uncomfortable, and it was my responsibility to support them by following up in a kind and respectful way.”
Jones, whose grew up in Oklahoma and lived, taught and earned advanced degrees over six years in Australia, as her husband is Australian, has a 25 year career in public education and most recently the chief academic officer of the Deer Creek Public Schools in Oklahoma. She came to head the Falls Church School System in May 2011 and has overseen the implementation of technological innovations in the highly-acclaimed system.
According to the Fairfield Daily Voice, the Board of Education there “selected Jones after a national search conducted by the executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates. The firm “conducted a professional and thorough search, which resulted in a competitive field of candidates,” the Daily Voice quoted Fairfield Board of Education chair Philip Dwyer, who is quoted as continuing,“Dr. Jones has a variety of strengths, qualities and experiences that the board feels will help the district move forward.”
Meanwhile, with the start of the Falls Church school year Tuesday, School Board chair Justin Castillo reported in a guest commentary published in this edition that preliminary counts point to a 5.5 to 6.5 percent increase in enrollment this fall to 2,701 students on the first day (with more students expected in the coming days), adding pressure on the system due to its continued robust growth.
Both LaCondre, who has been the chief financial officer in Falls Church for five years, and Horn confirmed to the News-Press this week their plans to leave.
LaCondre said that when he leaves at the end of October, he will move to Florida, and has no plans once there to report. Horn said he’ll be leaving at the end of this month, saying only that it will be “to pursue other options,” although there are unconfirmed reports that he will be going to a high school in Fairfax County to resume coaching.