Mount Vernon parents questioned schools Superintendent Jack Dale on topics ranging from rising class sizes to fewer honors classes to the equity of teacher attention towards all students at a town hall meeting Wednesday night at Walt Whitman Middle Schol.
The town hall meeting, hosted by Mount Vernon School Board member Dan Storck, was advertised as an opportunity for Dale to present the to parents of Cluster IV students.
It turned into a sometimes contentious back-and-forth between parents and Dale that at some points had the superintendent on the defensive, and parents raising their voices. About 90 people attended.
Dale said Fairfax schools have suffered because the county has had to increase class size in K-12 schools because of budget constraints.
“The high school classes, in some cases, were on the verge of violating the fire marshal [regulations] because of capacity in classrooms. Quite frankly, it’s a resource constraint that I don’t know how to deal with,” he said.
The school system – already 11th-largest in the nation, officials say – has seen an increase of about 12,000 students in the last five years, according to Mount Vernon school board member Dan Storck. At the same time, he said falling revenue has demanded across-the-boardcuts, including a marked decrease in cost-per-pupil spending,
“We’re at the mercy of our funding sources,” he said. “We must balance the budget.”
Officials said that more families began sending their kids to public schools when the economy started to decline about three years ago. Dale said it’s projected that 1,000 more kids will be coming to Fairfax schools annually in the next few years.
Judy Harbeck, chair of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Association, asked Dale how he could ensure that “all of our children are getting a quality education in the Mount Vernon schools” equal to what they might get in some other part of the county.
Unlike other school systems, Dale replied, Fairfax is providing about $100 million more in staffing to schools with more impoverished students or for those students whose first language isn’t English.
One trend in education that’s getting “breakthrough” results, Dale said, is when schools field teams of teachers to focus on a single child. Replicating that strategy has “been our laser-like focus,” he said.
Parent Jennifer Brower, shouted out that “at least half the people here” were frustrated not to see the same dedication to middle- and high-performing students.
“We are all volunteering every day and every night, and killing ourselves for our kids,” she said. “To say you have a laser focus on kids that need help… that means everybody else is in the dark.”
Barry Meuse, a local grandfather, wanted to know if auditing was being done for school budgets, to have “someone who goes around looking for savings – is that a worthwhile thing to consider?”
Dale agreed, but said that function had been cut.
“Part of our scrubbing in the central office,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a wise thing to do, but there’s tremendous pressure from people in the community to preserve class sizes, so that’s what we saved.”
Local parent Manley Williams questioned the county’s push to phase out honors classes where there is an AP or IB alternative even though she said she has heard school officials say they care about students who get “As” as much as students who get “Ds.”
“So why have you eliminated honors programs?” she asked. “Why can’t we have them reinstated this fall?”
Dale said that, according to research, when schools offer more “levels of learning” education for students in the lower tiers gets “watered down.” That reply drew groans from the audience – many parents at the meeting were there pushing for restoration of honors courses – and resulted in a condemnation from Storck, who demanded parents remain civil.
Officials briefly reviewed the topic of all-day kindergarten, calling it a high-visibility, top-priority item.
Dale’s budget has included funding for all-day kindergarten at the 36 schools that don’t already have it. One reason for that is about 1,500 poor and non-native English-speaking students are not getting the “all-day-K” from which they would benefit, he said.
Dale also mentioned how the county will save about $12 million from teachers retiring – something teachers didn’t do right away in the last few years when the economic outlook was bleaker, he noted.
Scott Brabrand, assistant superintendent for Cluster IV, said schools are continuing to ratchet up academic rigor in classrooms.
“We should be challenged, because it’s your tax money and you want to see a return on the investment,” he said. “We’re headed in the right direction and we’re going to continue to stay focused on what we need to do to make the schools a better place for your son or daughter.”
Additional public hearings on the budget are scheduled for May 17-18.