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Parents Seek Business Sense, Transparency in New Leader

As Fairfax County superintendent search forums continue, parents and staff place value on open, honest communication and a better understanding of budget.

Next summer, the leader of Fairfax County Public Schools could look like this: An educator with a strong economic background and experience in diverse school districts; a visible part of community discussions; someone who demands transparency, and on their own team, also embraces it; someone who could  finally one-up the system's counterparts in Montgomery County.

That was the picture painted by more than a dozen parents and system employees who met Thursday with Haazard, Young, Attea and Associates, who will retire in June.

The meeting at the system's headquarters on Gatehouse Road in Falls Church was one of several this week designed to help the firm — which led the search for Dale in 2004 as well as Montgomery's 2011 search for now-Superintendent Joshua Starr — paint a better community portrait of what stakeholders want and what they think the system needs. 

While turnout has hovered around handfuls of parents at each meeting — something consultant Diane McCauley attributes to the holidays — responses to the system's online survey have poured in: as of Wednesday night, it clocked more than 1,200 responses.

The firm has also met with individual community groups this week.

On Thursday, parents from across the county as well as system employees echoed much of what has been shared by others this week: a desire to keep the county's strong academics, as well as a desire for a leader who would more openly and honestly communicate with all stakeholders — from parents, to teachers; staff to board members.

"We do have a very well-educated group of parents that sometimes feels they know better.  We need someone who can share in a very respectful, open, warm way why [things are happening the way they are]," said Jill Hecht, a parent from Vienna. "That doesn't always happen right now."

Toward that end, transparency as a whole was an issue for parent Eric Johnson, who spoke about what he felt was an inaccessible budget process and difficulty assessing what's happening in the classroom.

"My son gets a marvelous education and I think that’s in spite of the way the county is being run, instead of because of the way it is run," he said. "We have some very exceptional schools and those that need a lot of help. ... We need more consistency ... and with that comes more accountability."

Diversity was something the system already handles well, said Beth Eachus, the PTA president at Marshall Road Elementary School in Vienna, a parent of four who said the system had served one of her sons, a special needs student, very well.

"It's looking at an individual child versus a program the child can fit into," said Eachus, who wanted that kind of mentality to continue.

But diversity was also something Eachus and others in the room thought the system could better embrace — from different approaches in the classroom to better outreach to minority parents, a population one minority parent liaison in the room called silent and unheard.

"Actually, there are a lot of silent populations who are ... not participating," the liaison said. "I think it’s hard to actually implement this diversity [in] policy. [Right now], it’s all in talk."

"I think in our system we’re very compassionately advocating diversity and all inclusiveness but we’re very segregated," the liaison continued. "I want the next superintendent ... to actually see what works."

"It has to be grassroots instead of top down," noted a parent from Chantilly High School.

Other concerns included:

  • A limited budget: Parents wanted someone who could stretch a dollar, prioritize funding and be an advocate at the state level.
  • Dealing more quickly with a growing population, particularly around Tysons Corner: Johnson, a parent in the Tysons area, said his neighborhood is growing at an alarming rate, but when he's asked about a new school, he's been told it won't come until 2030. 
  • Better pay for teachers: "We have great teachers but I guarantee we lose great teachers for salary to elite private schools, so I would want to make sure that's a priority," the Chantilly parent said. She noted she'd like to see the superintendent support a better way to determine whether a teacher is excelling and develop programs to make them improve if they are not.
  • Freeing classroom assessment from the state's Standards of Learning exams by finding and emphasizing other ways to measure performance and create curriculum. “We need to say 'SOLs and ...'" one parent, a former educator at Thomas Jefferson High School, said. "Not SOLs only."
  • Good relationship with the school board: A new leader should be "capable of creating relationships — not at the leadership team level, I mean relationships with principals in our schools and communities and understanding those very diverse needs," the same parent said.

The last community meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. today at the system's headquarters, 8115 Gatehouse Rd, Falls Church. The online survey will remain open.

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