Red Apple Mom

February 26, 2011

Fairfax County Judge Denies Emergency Motion to Quash Subpoenas

Lawyers duked it out Friday in a pre-trial hearing about allegations that the Fairfax County School Board violated the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act.

Round One (Friday) – Determining Who Will Testify:

Attorneys representing FCPS entered the courtroom Friday morning determined to quash the plaintiff’s subpoenas for the full School Board and four FCPS top-level staff to personally appear at the trial next week.

FCPS’ attorney told the judge that the subpoenas amounted to harassment of the School Board, adding that it would be a hardship for School Board members to appear at a day-long trial next week.  He stated that School Board is only a part-time position and most Members have jobs.

For a moment, it appeared that FCPS’ attorney had the judge convinced on that point.  But then the plaintiff’s attorney spoke saying, “It is up to FCPS to prove this is harassment.  It is up to FCPS to prove it is burdensome.  He hasn’t said why it is burdensome for them to come when we have juries that sit in that jury box for days.”

That got the judge’s attention.   Final decision – the judge said having all 12 School Boards attend the trial was excessive.   Only six will appear.

The six School Board members and four FCPS administrators who will appear in court and may be called to testify at next Wednesday’s trial

Dean Tistadt

include School Board Members Liz Bradsher, Tessie Wilson, Kathy Smith, Tina Hone, Patty Reed and Jim Raney.  The FCPS Staff witnesses are:  Dean Tistadt-Chief Operating Officer, Paul Regnier-Communications Spokesman , Pam Goddard-Clerk to the School Board, and Sara Kolb-Communications Department.

Round Two (Friday) – Admissibility of Documents:

FCPS’ attorney argued that all FOIA’d documents have been produced except about 100 documents that are exempt from FOIA.

The judge asked why they were exempt and was told that the 100 documents contained student or FCPS personnel information or were exempt due to client attorney privilege.

The judge pressed some more saying, “I get that notes during meetings are standard fare.  My clerk sometimes sends notes about the ties some attorneys are wearing.  Were School Board members really getting emails with attorney’s advice and about students during the meeting?”

FCPS’ attorney said her recollection was that these emails took place during the School Board’s closed session meeting.  The plaintiff’s attorney argued that the emails in question clearly were not distributing student information or having client/attorney discussions during meetings.

Final Decision:  The judge will personally review the 100 exempted emails Monday morning (officially called an “in camera review”) and determine if the redacted emails do indeed fall under the auspices of executive privilege and whether they are exempt from FOIA. 

What to Look For at Next Wednesday’s Trial:

This case is about process – not the substance of the emails. At the heart of the case is the Open Meetings Law and whether the FCPS School Board conducted the public’s business about the closure of Clifton Elementary School via email.  If what School Board members had said in private emails had been said in public at the meeting, the decision to close Clifton elementary school may have turned out differently.  So look for the plaintiffs to argue about why the Open Meetings Act matters and how the procedures put in place to protect people’s rights were not followed.

Stay tuned – I’ll have more after Wednesday’s trial.  The public may attend.  Location:  Fairfax County Courthouse, Fairfax City – 10:00am, Wednesday, March 2, 2011 – fifth floor.  Check the docket to determine which courtroom.  Note:  No cameras or cellphones allowed in court.

© Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom, 2001. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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February 24, 2011

The New Norm: Pay Up for those Who Don’t

The full-day kindergarten (FDK) debate going on in Fairfax County has highlighted just how inequitable our public education system has become in Fairfax County.

It doesn’t matter if it’s FDK, school renovations, class size or goodies like the foreign language in elementary schools (FLES) program.   A minority of Fairfax County public schools are receiving a majority of our public school resources.  Areas like Bailey’s Crossroads, parts of Annandale, Mount Vernon, the Route One Corridor and Herndon make out like bandits in comparison to areas like parts of Alexandria, Fairfax Station, McLean, Great Falls, Vienna and Oakton who get screwed on FDK, class size and special programs.

Last year, I complained to my School Board member Jane Strauss about my son’s ridiculously large class.  (This year his fifth grade class has 36 students!)  Her response to me – stated in front of our entire McLean Community Association education committee – was that I should move my family to Bailey’s Crossroads where my son would have only 20 students in his class.  She even took care to kindly warn me that I would have to learn Spanish in order to speak with new neighbors there.  Hey I like Bailey’s Crossroads, but I’m kind of tied to a mortgage right now.  It’s incredulous that Strauss suggests constituents  should move because she refuses to address a serious problem.  Which is why Jane Strauss – who has served on the board for nearly two decades –  needs to go this November!

Here’s another example.  Just a month ago, the moms heading up the Full-Day Kindergarten effort told me that Board of Supervisor Penny Gross-Mason District- refused to meet with them saying, “My area already has FDK.  I don’t care about your issue.”  Wow.  She sure cares about our county tax dollars that fund all the programs for her part of the county though doesn’t she?!

I would have no problem paying slightly more in taxes to the county IF MY CHILDREN RECEIVED THE SAME BASIC PUBLIC EDUCATION SERVICES that others in this county receive.   But they don’t and that IS a fact!  The poor communities in our county will always need additional services and they should get those services – but they shouldn’t get all the basics and more while the rest of us receive “crumbs”!   The pendulum has swung so far out of whack with Fairfax County’s Public School’s “needs-based” budgeting approach that those who pay the most get the absolute least.  Public education should be for everyone – rich and poor.  These are kids we are talking about and all kids deserve the basics in a public education – like FDK and decent class sizes containing 26 or fewer students.

I’m becoming convinced that the new norm in Fairfax County Public Schools is now:  Pay up for those who don’t.  We see it with testing fees, athletic fees, FCPS resource allocation and then FCPS’ pleas for higher taxes.   I believe it has been FCPS’ strategy all along to create a major imbalance over this past decade.  They gradually redistributed  a majority of resources to the less affluent schools so that over time, it is now the new norm.  FCPS’ hope, I believe, is that the wealthier areas may finally join their call for higher taxes for education.

But here’s the problem.  Trust.  We don’t trust that Dr. Dale and FCPS will re-allocate new revenues to our area.  In fact, just three weeks ago at one of the School Board budget meetings, FCPS officials stated that they intend to bulk up central administration spending again once the economy returns to normal.  Any new dollars should flow to the classroom and teacher first – period!

Here’s an additional rub.   More affluent areas of the county may get some of the resources they are seeking, but at price in more LOST resources. It’s likely we’ll see FDK implemented because it is an election year and the School Board wants to play Santa Claus even if only for once.  Just last night, Dr. Dale told the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Committee that elementary school principals around the county have agreed to trade other resources in order to help pay for FDK in the remaining 37 schools.  A source I trust told me they saw the principals’ list and at the top of proposed cuts:  Kindergarten classroom aides and aides to special education classes! FLES fans should be relieved.  Your program apparently is not on the list.

Let’s see if any of these inequities are discussed at tonight’s School Board meeting.  You can catch it at 7:00pm on Channel 21, watch it live via webstreaming at http://www.FCPS.edu or attend in person at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.  The meeting should be packed with action as the main discussion concerns the SW Boundary study.  12 of 21 schools in the boundary study are demanding a halt to the study citing doubts about FCPS’ data.

Watch closely to see who sides with Liz Bradsher.  And keep an eye out for reformers Patty Reed and Tina Hone.  As always, they are great about trying to ensure that the community’s concerns are fully and satisfactorily addressed.   Here’s hoping that Sandy Evans, Ilryong Moon and Jim Rainey flex some muscle on behalf of the public tonight too.

This action alert in from Zero Tolerance Reform: The FCPS School Board will conduct a forum meeting on discipline review tonight at 5:30pm at Luther Jackson Middle School.  In response student Nick Stuben’s tragic suicide, several Board members are presenting a request to review several aspects of FCPS’ discipline process.

WINCE ALERT: Want to see what some school board members really think about the public they claim to serve?  Check out this link which has posted several disturbing FOIA’d emails between school board members Liz Bradsher and Tessie Wilson:
http://www.fairfaxunderground.com/forum/read.php?2,430530,515096,page=12#msg-515096http://www.fairfaxunderground.com/forum/read.php?2,430530,515096,page=12#msg-515096

 

  • RELATED MATERIALS – Letter from Delegate Tim Hugo to FCPS regarding SW Boundary Study

February 19, 2011

Attorney for Fairfax County Public Schools Refuses Service of Subpoenas

This just in:

Sources close to Washington, DC law firm Patton Boggs told me this astounding news today:  The attorney for Fairfax County Public Schools refused service of the subpoenas issued to the FCPS School Board and top FCPS School officials.

If you read my post yesterday, you know the subpoenas were issued to FCPS over alleged violations of the Open Meetings Law and alleged violations of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

This same source also told me that Pam Goddard, Executive Assistant and Clerk to the FCPS School Board accepted her subpoena, but refused to accept the subpoenas for the School Board.  I find her refusal to accept the subpoenas interesting considering that she is the “Clerk to the School Board”   That means she’s the official caretaker of all official records pertaining to the School Board.  So it’s quite surprising she refused these documents from the Court.  Does this mean Court officials will have to go to School Board members’ homes and work places to serve them their subpoenas in person?  Would FCPS attorneys really permit that embarrassment to take place?

As a taxpayer, I’m quite stunned at the FCPS attorney’s refusal to accept the subpoenas.  Do some of our School Board officials and FCPS administrative personnel think they are above the law and don’t have to accept court documents when served?  Don’t we taxpayers and supporters of our public schools deserve better leadership from these officials?

These events mean Thursday’s trial date has been scrapped and the trial is now set for 10am on March 2nd.

Stay tuned for more details on this developing and changing story.

February 18, 2011

Subpoenas Issued to Full School Board & Top FCPS Officials – Breaking News

THIS BREAKING NEWS JUST IN:

The entire Fairfax County Public School Board and top FCPS officials have been subpoenaed by the Washington, DC based law firm Patton Boggs.   

The focus of the subpoena concerns alleged violations of the Open Meeting Law and alleged violations of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Fairfax County Public School officials.

FCPS and Patton Boggs attorneys are appearing in Fairfax County court today to set a trial date.  Under Virginia law, FOIA cases are required by statute to be heard in seven calendar days.  The statute does not permit exceptions for weekends or holidays.

This case stems from last summer’s School Board vote to close Clifton elementary school  – one of the county’s top performing elementary schools.  School Board officials claimed renovations needed for the school were too costly and that it is cheaper in the long run to close the school.  Several media outlets and the Fairfax Education Coalition called the School Board’s decision premature.  Since the vote, FOIA’d documents and email communications between School Board members and FCPS officials have demonstrated serious flaws in the data used to close Clifton ES.

The importance of this action is its relation to the FCPS southwestern boundary study.  The School Board is scheduled to vote on the SW boundary issue next Thursday, February 24th – the same day the School Board and FCPS officials, according to state statute, will have to appear in court.  This will make pre-vote and pre-meeting communications difficult for the School Board.  Cell phones and computers are not permitted in the Fairfax County Courthouse for members of the public.  So it will be interesting to see if the School Board will still have their scheduled meeting and planned vote that evening.   Compounding the problem for FCPS is the fact that two or more school board members may not sit together in court due to rules of the Open Meetings Law.  Sources close to Patton Boggs insist the timing of the subpoenas, in relation to next week’s School Board vote, is pure coincidence.  They told me they couldn’t issue the subpoenas earlier in the week because they received another 2000 FOIA’d documents from FCPS just this Tuesday.

The potential effects of these subpoenas and a trial could be very interesting for thousands of families in Fairfax County.

1.  In SW county, some schools are overcrowded and some are under capacity.  The problems there have now been compounded by the School Board’s vote to close Clifton ES.  Those Clifton kids have to go somewhere and assigning them to other schools in the SW boundary is causing a big domino effect.  If 30 kids from Clifton are reassigned to “School A”,  some kids from “School A” must then be reassigned to a new school to make room for the Clifton kids.  The affected schools in the SW boundary study are very upset by the fast pace of events put in place by FCPS because it’s no longer just about the Clifton community.  It’s affecting thousands of kids at their schools too.  As a result, over half of the 21 PTAs in the impacted SW boundary schools signed a common resolution calling for a total halt to the boundary study.  Their common complaint is a stated lack of confidence in FCPS’ process and in the validity of FCPS’ data.

2.  If FCPS is found to be in violation of  the Open Meetings Law and FOIA, the original vote to close Clifton ES may be ruled null and void.  The School Board might have to revisit this issue using data brought forth by the community.  They might also have to revisit the renovation queue.  At least one School Board member, Liz Bradsher, was trying to position the closure of Clifton ES as an opportunity to move other schools up the renovation queue.  This appeared to many people as potentially permitting a “jumping the line” in the renovation queue.  Even though the public is led to believe that independent engineers set the renovation queue, the fact is the School Board has the power to alter that queue if they so desire.  (Any school on the current renovation queue should monitor this closely!)

3.  Whatever happens in court next week could potentially lead to a change in the way FCPS does business with the public.  If the allegations put forth by the Patton Boggs attorneys are true – that FCPS violated the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act – we all might see a much more transparent and accountable School Board.  We all might see School Board decisions made that give greater consideration to the concerns expressed by the impacted communities.  We all might see FCPS policies and programs that include and reflect community proposed solutions instead of just what FCPS staff wants.

Some local reporters are telling me they are watching this case closely for even larger ramifications – the use of digital technology by all elected officials during public meetings.  For instance, if two officials are conversing via their iPads or blackberrys about an upcoming vote during the meeting, does that violate the Open Meetings Law?  Does that communication prevent public participation?  We may find out in Fairfax County Court next week.

So get ready Red Apple Mom readers.  FCPS attorneys have been very successful in winning cases brought against them by parents and members of the community.  On this one though, I’d bet money that the FCPS team is sweating.  I’m told Virginia’s FOIA law is very cut and dry.  I’ve seen hundreds of the FOIA’d documents.  The content of many of the emails isn’t pretty – even to this untrained legal eye.  Importantly, the emails appear to demonstrate a systematic pattern by several School Board members and FCPS officials for cutting deals and conducting the people’s business in email rather than in public.

February 11, 2011

Sparks Fly Between Superintendent Jack Dale & the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors

Sparks flew today between Superintendent Jack Dale and his main benefactor – the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (BOS) over the issue of Fairfax County Public Schools’ Zero Tolerance Policy.

Earlier this week, the BOS took the unusual action of unanimously passing a resolution directly aimed at FCPS’ disciplinary process.  The BOS resolution, titled “FCPS Zero Tolerance Policy,” directs county agencies to share resources and expertise in family services to assist troubled FCPS youth.  The resolution also invites all FCPS stakeholders to report back to the BOS with “options and alternatives to the current policy” –  the Zero Tolerance Policy.

Encouraging community engagement and a partnership between our schools, the BOS and the public sounds like a great idea.  It’s not sitting well with Superintendent Dale though.  In a bold statement to the BOS today, he chastised the Board’s use of the words “Zero Tolerance Policy” saying it “perpetuates the falsehood that FCPS has a zero tolerance policy.”

Dr. Dale seems a day late and a dollar short on that call.  Perception is reality and the BOS and the public has long known FCPS’ policy by the name  “Zero Tolerance.”  In fact one of the co-founding members of the Fairfax Education Coalition (of which I am a member) is the group “Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform.”    If this term was “incorrect,” the word police in FCPS’ $2 million communications department could have and should have corrected the public’s perception on that one a long time ago.

Dale’s letter concludes saying, “I strongly recommend that all members of the Board of Supervisors learn more about FCPS’ practices and policies before making public statements that are misinformed…” Ouch!   Is FCPS so used to talking down to taxpaying parents and teachers that they don’t mind doing it to their “elders” – the Board of Supervisors too?!

It’s surprising that Dr. Dale chose to chastise the BOS in public and not behind closed doors.  Just last week, he and the School Board requested an extra $48 million budget transfer on top of the $1.7 billion the BOS already gives our schools.  I wonder how generous they’ll feel now that their petulant son, Dr. Dale, has called them “misinformed.”

I suspect what’s really going on here is the beginning of a turf war.  As an unelected official, Dr. Dale controls 53% of all county revenues.  He’s appointed by the School Board and they basically do whatever they want without any oversight from the BOS – until now.  The BOS is dipping their toes into FCPS territory and that has to make the Superintendent uneasy.   After all, today’s partnership with the BOS on disciplinary review could become tomorrow’s independent audit of how FCPS really spends their $2.2-$2.5 BILLION budget.

Yes, I suspect this very public letter Dr. Dale sent actually has very little to do with FCPS’ Zero Tolerance Policy.  Oops –   we’re not supposed to call it that.  So let’s just say that “policy we can’t call Zero Tolerance” needs reform.  Since the public funds the county budget and our schools, this partnership makes terrific sense.  So kudos to the Board of Supervisors for proposing a solution that includes the public and values their input.  It would be a welcome turn of events  if the Superintendent felt that way too.

Related Articles & Materials

February 8, 2011

School Board Member Liz Bradsher Gets An Earful

Tonight was not a proud moment for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Of the 40+ speakers who adddressed the FCPS School Board Monday night about the Southwest Boundary Study, there were at least 27 references speaking to a lack of confidence about the boundary process and a complete consensus among the crowd that the entire process should be scrapped and started over.

Why should this matter to the county at large?  Because FCPS has spent a lot of money on this project and has stated that the SW Boundary study is to serve as a “model” for future boundary studies.   And that IS worrisome!  What if you live in the next area deemed worthy of a “boundary study” by the School Board?

Parents say the SW boundary study was so poorly conducted by FCPS staff that 11 of 21 PTAs (representing 8500 families)  in the SW boundary study have all signed a common resolution calling for a halt to the process until all concerns in the community are addressed.

The biggest loser of tonight’s hearing definitely was Springfield District School Board member Liz Bradsher.   Bradsher’s perceived underhanded tactics in this boundary study have several community leaders calling for an end to her career in public service saying that she is no longer an effective representative.  The public at the hearing appeared to agree.

Parents weren’t shy tonight in addressing their complaints about Bradsher’s behavior these past few months.  Several mentioned her ugly comments about PTA moms and parent advocates that became available through recent FOIA requests of Bradsher’s email correspondence with other FCPS officials.

Noticeably absent at tonight’s hearings were all the “friends” Liz Bradsher relied on this past summer for support when she was corralling votes to close Clifton Elementary School.  Not a single person from the SW Regional Planning Committee showed up to speak in support of Bradsher for the study either.  If this boundary study is such a great thing for southwest Fairfax County, how come no one from this committee signed up to sing its or Liz Bradsher’s praises?

It appears no one wants to defend Liz Bradsher anymore and the community clearly doesn’t want this boundary study.   As one father, Shan Thiru, put it, “None of the parents are happy.  The closing of one school (Clifton ES) is making all this mess.”

Let’s see if the rest of the School Board has the courage to clean up Bradsher’s mess. They’ll have the chance in a couple of weeks when they vote on what to do for Southwest County.  I’m with the parents.  Start over FCPS.

February 4, 2011

“This Budget Is a Myth.” ~ Tina Hone, FCPS School Board Member

Superintendent Dale Shaking The Money Tree

When I was in high school, my very generous policeman father would leave me and my sister his credit card so we could shop for school clothes on our own.  The credit card always came with this handwritten note, “Remember – Daddy loves his daughters best when they spend like little birds – cheep, cheep, CHEAP!”

What my father meant was:   “I’m trusting you to spend responsibly.  We don’t have a money tree in this house.  Get what you need, but spend wisely.”

Our School Board needs some of my father’s sage advice.   While School Boards around the country are taking a conservative approach with their education budgets, Fairfax County Public Schools is actually adding programs and staff raises without proposing internal budget cuts to pay for the proposals.

FCPS’ political spin paints a rosy economic picture.  Board Chairman Kathy Smith – Sully district – is now out there publicly stating that the Fairfax economy is “recovering”.    Oh really?  Because I just received FCPS’ newsletter “The Bottom Line” which reports that 25.5% of FCPS students are eligible for free and reduced free meals (FRM) and that many parents and guardians who apply for FRM report they are doing so because they have lost their jobs. Since when are growing jobless numbers signs of a recovering economy Chairman Smith?

School Board Chair Kathy Smith

I wonder too if Chairman Smith has looked at a television lately.  Has she or any of the Board members given any thought as to how the chaos in the Middle East may affect FCPS transportation and heating costs next year if gasoline prices spike as expected?

Reality checks in FCPS may not be plentiful but optimism sure is with this School Board.  Dan Storck – Mount Vernon district – keeps pushing FCPS to ask the Board of Supervisors for more and more money saying, “The community will be with us.”

School Board Member Dan Storck

Don’t be so sure Mr. Stork.  75% of county residents don’t have kids in the system.  Do you really believe they’ll be ready to support more taxes when the schools already receive 53% of all county tax revenue?   How about those FCPS families with no jobs on FRM?  How are they going to pay more in taxes?  Of course, there is that other pesky reality that you and several other members seem to ignore – Fairfax County is still facing a $55 million shortfall this next fiscal year!

The taxpayers in this county are already very generous.  So it’s only fair to ask, “Is this really the time to ‘poke the bear’ when the economy is still in a fragile state?”  FCPS currently has a $2.2 BILLION budget.  When you add in other federal funds, the budget is actually closer to $2.5 BILLION.  Put into context, the FCPS annual budget is actually equal to the 2010 reported net profit for Target Corporation! (source:  http://finance.yahoo.com/q/is?s=tgt&annual)

How can $2.2 -$2.5 BILLION be insufficient for meeting the needs of our school children and teachers in Fairfax County?

Just because you’re a world-class school district, it doesn’t mean you get a pass on presenting  “real-world” budget options to your taxpaying community.  Why can’t the Superintendent identify for the public now the program and administrative cuts that may be necessary to fund $48 million in teacher and staff raises and the $8 million needed for Full-Day Kindergarten (FKD) implementation?

This lack of a public plan on the part of the Superintendent and School Board is staggering.  Sadly, the reality of the situation seems to have resonated with only two members of the school board – reformers Patty Reed from the Providence District, and Tina Hone, At-Large member.   Reed called the Superintendent’s budget “unrealistic” in light of the county’s current fiscal situation.  Tina Hone was more blunt saying, “This budget is a myth.”

School Board Member Tina Hone

School Board Member Patty Reed

Hone is right and here’s the real “Bottom Line” on what this myth means for parents and teachers right now:  personal finance decisions for thousands of families will have to remain on hold until later this spring.  Teachers don’t know if they’ll get their raise.  Parents don’t know if they’ll really get FDK leaving moms and dads to wonder if they can go back to work or if they have to make expensive back-up plans for private kindergarten.   Thanks to Superintendent Dale and the School Board, no one will have answers for these critical decisions until late spring.

My father was right.  “We don’t have a money tree.” The real and only solution is for Superintendent Dale to present a realistic budget alternative – a “Plan B” for how FCPS will pay for FDK and teacher raises if the Board of Supervisors won’t give the School Board more money.     Come on FCPS – don’t make us wait until the spring.  Do your job.  Make the tough decisions now and make those decisions public.

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