By Justin Castillo
August is already a fading memory. It’s the first day of school, and I just finished my first homework assignment of the 2016-2017 school year: Writing the Falls Church City Public Schools back to school column about recent developments and future plans.
But before I do that, consider this riddle that the Virginia School Boards Association posed to the School Board at a governance retreat last February:
Q: How many school board members does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. The board’s job is to say, “Let there be light.” The superintendent chooses the best light bulbs and delegates a staff member to install them. The board then evaluates the superintendent by determining if the light is bright enough.
That riddle is the most concise way to answer the question people in the community often ask: “so what exactly does the School Board do?” To elaborate, the Board performs three essential tasks to meet the Virginia Constitution’s mandate that we provide a free, high-quality K-12 education for all Falls Church City children: We develop strategy, provide resources, and hire/evaluate a superintendent. The superintendent, as the CEO of the Board, then implements our strategy. The board then evaluates how well the superintendent turned our plan into a reality.
How well are our children learning? The theme at last week’s convocation – “Engaging every learner every day” – captures our desire to look beyond aggregate scores when evaluating student achievement. We want each and every student to maximize his or her potential.
The Board will be doing an in-depth analysis of student achievement soon, but the preliminary results look good: Through hard work and individualized attention, George Mason High School (GMHS) achieved a 100 percent graduation rate. Passing rates for students in our small school system were at or near the top in all of the SOL categories, and average ACT scores stayed strong.
Enrollment: we now have 2,701 students, an increase of 167 from last year. Eight grades have 200+ students, with third grade being the largest at 228. Official numbers won’t be out for several weeks, but it appears that enrollment will increase by 5.5 – 6.5 percent. Of course this will almost certainly create significant pressures on next year’s budget.
Personnel: I would like to welcome the over 40 new teachers, specialists and counselors to FCCPS along with new staff and a half dozen new administrators. The School Board recognizes that people are our most important asset.
Facilities: Rising enrollment is creating capacity challenges throughout the division, especially at GMHS, Mary Ellen Henderson (MEH) and Thomas Jefferson, the first two of which are now over capacity. In addition, GMHS is an aging facility with outdated systems that will require expensive repairs if these systems fail.
With the recent decision not to issue a detailed request for proposals for the joint RFP, the School Board will soon be working on the process for defining next steps for the GMHS/MEH project. Time is running short; it is my personal hope that the School Board and the City Council will be able to develop a plan in time for a referendum during the November 2017 election cycle.
Financing a 1,200-seat high school and the MEH expansion won’t be easy. But remember: the City tackled projects of a similar magnitude 60 years ago, and we can do it again. With respect to costs, the Washington Post recently covered two projects that serve as reference points. The first involved a $58 million phased renovation of Ron Brown Middle School into a 500-600 seat high school. The second is a $127 million renovation of D.C.’s 1,100-seat Roosevelt High School (which included a swimming pool).
This summer the School Board also worked diligently on the proposed Mt. Daniel expansion. As part of this effort, we reduced the proposed capacity of the building to 660 students and participated in a hearing before the Fairfax County Planning Commission. We will continue to work with the Planning Commission and all of the other stakeholders to achieve a result that works for everyone. Finally, Thomas Jefferson’s HVAC replacement came in on time and under budget.
The Budget: While budget season traditionally starts in November, we continue to work with the City Council, and especially the Budget and Finance Committee, to start the process sooner so that we can have a thorough and wide-ranging community discussion about capital and operating budget priorities. Our process begins by evaluating how we performed over the last academic year and identifying what actions we need to take to maintain success and address areas that need improvement. It’s my hope that these initiatives will help to pave the way for a smoother budget season for 2017. Because the school population is growing faster the overall City population, we will need additional resources to maintain the high quality school system that draws so many people to Falls Church City.
Justin Castillo is chair of the Falls Church City School Board.