Two Fairfax County School Board members joined a McLean Citizens Association (MCA) March 15 online forum to discuss the school system’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget, but spent most of the question-and-answer session fending off pointed – some might say insolent – accusations from the public.
One caller asked why school officials had disregarded repeated statements by Fairfax County Health Department leaders that schools could reopen.
School Board member Elaine Tholen (Dranesville District) said Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) based its decision on health, logistical and operational metrics. Matters were ambiguous last summer, but more data have become available since, she said.
Officials were preparing a return-to-school plan following the winter holidays, but there was a major surge in COVID-19 cases, she said.
As of March 16, all students who wished to resume in-person learning were back in school for up to two days per week on a hybrid schedule, Tholen said. The school system roughly is split 50-50, with half of students seeking in-person classes and the other half continuing to learn only virtually, she said.
School Board member Karl Frisch (Providence District) said a large number of elementary-school students in his district have sought to resume in-person schooling, while a smaller number of high-school students have done the reverse, preferring virtual learning.
The same caller said Frisch should recuse himself from pay-raise discussions because his partner is a teacher. Frisch responded that shortly after being elected in November 2019, he asked the school system’s legal counsel if there would be a conflict because of his relationship with a teacher.
“I was told explicitly that unless the teacher was a dependent of mine or a spouse of mine, there would be no conflict,” he said, adding that even if that were the case, the legal requirement is disclosure when voting.
Frisch added, “If we do plan to get married, I’ll make sure that you get a wedding invitation . . . If we do get married, then I will govern myself according to the rules and regulations of the school division and the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Superintendent Scott Brabrand’s proposed budget is “student-centered, with funding for psychologists, counselors, school nurses, digital resources, instructional coaches and supports for expanding advanced academics and special education,” Tholen said. The budget asks for $73.7 million to finance a 3-percent pay raise for employees to keep FCPS competitive with surrounding jurisdictions, she said.
Frisch thanked Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) for sending a request to the General Assembly, on behalf of the Virginia Association of Counties, asking for more flexibility to allow large jurisdictions such as Fairfax County to access matching funds for employee raises.
Leigh Burden, FCPS assistant superintendent for finance, gave an overview of the school system’s proposed $3.2 billion operating budget. The budget requests a $104.4 million increase in Fairfax County’s transfer, which is far less than the $14 million boost proposed by County Executive Bryan Hill. Fairfax County finances about 71 percent of the FCPS budget and the state covers 24.5 percent, Burden said.
County supervisors will adopt the fiscal 2022 budget, including the school transfer, on May 4. The School Board then will hold public hearings May 11 (and the following day, if needed) and adopt the school system’s budget May 20. Fiscal 2022 begins July 1.
Jim Beggs, who chairs MCA’s Education and Youth Committee, asked if officials were considering MCA’s recent proposal that the county and its school system should issue more debt now while interest rates are historically low.
FCPS currently calls for facilities to receive major renovations every 37 years, but its capital-improvement plan seeks for that to be sped up to 25 years, Beggs said.
“If the Board of Supervisors decided to do something like this, we’re not going to complain about it, because we absolutely would like to see some more capital moneys coming into the schools,” Tholen said.
The extra funds could be put toward pressing needs, such as upgrading schools’ ventilation systems during the pandemic, or speeding up the school system’s renovation cycle, she said.
Public feedback at the meeting was lively, to say the least. A caller identified as Keith credited the General Assembly with passing legislation, which he hoped Gov. Northam would sign, that would require in-person schooling five days per week starting July 1.
The World Health Organization recently reduced its social-distancing limit to 3 feet, the caller said, added that teachers’ fear of contracting the virus from schoolchildren was unwarranted.
A caller named Monica said virtual learning has harmed children’s psyches and that they need to be learning together with other students, instead of staying at home with equally stressed-out parents. She wanted FCPS to spend more on infrastructure, saying that while the national average is for school systems to spend 82 percent of their budgets on salaries and benefits, Fairfax County schools spend 89 percent.
Frisch disagreed, saying FCPS lags regionally on teacher pay and needs to remain competitive, especially during a national teacher shortage.
Another caller thanked the School Board members for their prudence and balanced approach in the pandemic.
MCA member Kelly Green Kahn asked about the percentage of teachers who have been vaccinated. Tholen could not provide exact information, but said many teachers had gotten their shots, as have she and Frisch.
Frisch said it was “not unusual to hear heated back-and-forth at these types of events” and added he hoped the public would get their vaccines and continue to socially distance, wash their hands and wear masks to beat COVID.
“All of us doing that makes returning to school, and returning to normal, possible,” he said.
Tholen expressed sympathy for the callers’ concerns.
“This year of COVID has been extremely difficult for families,” Tholen said. “One of the hardest things about this job is that I can’t give everybody everything that they want.”