Red Apple Mom

March 30, 2011

Parents, Teachers & Five-Year Old Lobbyists

The Board of Supervisors held their first night of public hearings Tuesday night.  Adorable four and five-year olds were  in the audience with their parents and teachers advocating for increased education funding and teacher pay raises.

My remarks to Supervisors focused on the fact that FCPS should scrap their budget and re-build it.  We deserve a budget that focuses on the community’s priorities first – not administrative spending.  Here is my speech:

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Budget Hearings

March 29, 2011- Advertised 2012 Budget

Hello.  My name is Catherine Lorenze.  I am a co-founder of the Fairfax Education Coalition and FAIRGRADE and author of the Red Apple Mom blog. I am speaking for myself tonight – as the mother of three children.

When the School Board passed their budget last month, Member Patty Reed said it was “unrealistic.”  Tina Hone called FCPS’ budget “a myth.”  Member Jim Raney commented that perhaps the budget should be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch.

A lot of promises have been made on FDK and staff raises.

Now you must decide if FCPS’ promises are your responsibility to solve.

Please look at the funding statement located on page 147 of FCPS’ advertised budget that I have attached.  This statement shows a nearly $48 million reserve.

I hope you’ll ask serious questions about why FCPS is carrying over tens of millions of dollars going into next year.  Why were those funds not used this year to meet critical priorities?   Money sitting in a pot doesn’t serve the interests of school children and teachers.

I can’t help but wonder if FCPS is giving the community and you all the facts about this budget.  I attended the meeting between your two boards a couple of weeks ago.  When discussing the FDK issue, Supervisor Hudgins specifically asked school officials if any other programs had been implemented or expanded during the time FDK implementation was halted.  They answered no.  In fact, while FDK languished – the School Board voted to expand the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools Program.  And last year, they implemented a new program called the Priority Schools Initiative.

I agree with School Board member Jim Raney’s suggestion.  FCPS should scrap this budget and re-build it based on the public’s priorities which include FDK, teacher pay and importantly – lowering class size.   Last year, our school had a sixth grade class with 39 students.  This year, my son’s 5th grade class at Spring Hill Elementary currently has 35 students.  It has the feel of a poultry farm.  When it gets hot and stuffy, it smells like a poultry farm too.

My request to take a picture of his crowded classroom was denied by my principal.  However, I have attached a photo from nearby Churchill Elementary School that continues to also experience ridiculously large class sizes.

Regrettably, FCPS has allowed a subset of children in this county to shoulder the burden of budget cuts by way of super-sized class sizes.  This is simply unfair.

Please remember this when considering the FCPS budget transfer:   children and teachers deserve a budget that is focused on them and their needs first – not on Gatehouse staff whose work has minimal impact on my children and their teachers.

If kids are the priority FCPS claims them to be – then FCPS should reflect that in their budget priorities with reasonable class size and FDK.  FCPS should put their money where their mouth is, rather than making you absolve them of their fiduciary responsibility as recipients of 54% of the county budget.

MENTIONED MATERIALS:

March 27, 2011

Consequences of Sexting – Child Porn Charges

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

If you have a middle or high schooler, please read this frightening and very important article in today’s New York Times and share it with your child.  When it comes to the dangers and ramifications of “sexting,” anecdotal information is powerful prevention for both parents and students!

The story details the horrible outcome faced by a 14-year girl when she sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend.  Of course, the photo eventually went viral.  The story also details the consequences faced by the students who were caught distributing the photo via email – consequences which almost led to charges of child pornography dissemination.

Of particular interest in this article are the teen focus group comments discussing what today’s teens have to say about sexting.  Such comments include these gems:

Q:  Is sexting ever O.K.?

Saif, 18, Brooklyn:  It’s a way to express your feelings.  If a guy and a girl are in love, instead of saying it face to face, they can say it through technology.

Kathy, 17, Queens:  There’s a positive side to sexting.  You can’t get pregnant from it, and you can’t transmit S.T.D’s.  It’s a kind of safe sex.

The fact that teen sexting could lead to a stint in juvenile hall and ruin reputations escapes these teens’ logic.

The father of the girl who sent the photo of herself states in the article, “I learned a big lesson about my lack of involvement in her use of the phone and texting.  I trusted her too much.”

Trust or not, kids do really dumb things – especially when their heart and hormones overrule their brain.  Many teens live for the moment and don’t understand the long-term ramifications of some of their actions.

Do your family a huge favor.  Share this article.  Most importantly, discuss it with your kids – today.

Article:

March 23, 2011

Political Jiu Jitsu for 2011 School Board Elections

It’s not even April yet, and some School Board members are already trying to frame the November elections for School Board.

That tells me one thing – they’re running scared about being replaced by voters.

Their apparent strategy, as outlined in a recent Fairfax Times article, is to falsely depict all challengers as “one-issue” candidates who won’t serve the “whole” community.

Their strategy is also to make “student achievement” the sole focus of any campaign.

Here’s the problem for sitting school board members – the public is generally motivated to vote because of hot-button issues.  And FCPS has served up plenty of hot-button issues the past four years.  (See several outlined below.)

School Board Member Liz Bradsher told the Fairfax Times, “It’s important for whoever runs for the School Board not to be a one-issue candidate because that’s bad for the school system.”

Hmmmm…actually what’s bad for the school system is School Board meetings that violate Virginia’s Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act – violations that have recently led to expensive court action over the Clifton ES closure.

What’s also bad for the school system is School Board members who are out of touch and fail to be ahead of the curve on issues like FAIRGRADE, discipline reform and administrative spending priorities.

The current crop of School Board challengers aren’t one-issue candidates.  They have proven to be effective parent advocates who use data and evidence to validate their positions.  They use the law (like FOIA), to substantiate their concerns.  They advocate for accountability and transparent decision-making.  Most importantly, the issues they advocate for have all been directly or indirectly related to ‘student achievement.” 

My favorite part of this article is at the end when At-Large School Board member Jim Raney states that having new people on the board with new views can also be a good thing. I’ll second that statement!

Too many School Board members want this job for life. Ilyrong Moon has been on the board since 1995.  Jane Strauss is going on her second DECADE of service.  We need school board members who have kids currently attending our public schools – board members who “get it” and can relate to today’s parents and taxpayers!

No one I speak to wants more super-sized classes, administrators buying plush new buildings for themselves and senseless policies that lead to low teacher and student morale.

New views are good and needed.  That means electing new talent that will help reform-minded board members like Patty Reed.  Running a campaign for School Board is a demanding and expensive commitment.  At the very least, all challenger candidates deserve fair consideration.  If you like what they stand for and what they have accomplished, please give them your help and your vote.  With your support, the public may finally get the School Board we deserve in Fairfax County!

GATEHOUSE II:  In 2007, the School Board voted for a second, new administration building that would have cost $130 million.  Known as the “Gatehouse II” debacle, parent advocates got the project killed by demonstrating the huge holes in FCPS’ business case.

FAIRGRADE:  In 2009, thousands of parents engaged in a year long campaign to convince Dr. Dale and the School Board that previous grading policies were harming college-bound graduates.  The leaders of FAIRGRADE devoted thousands of volunteer hours compiling the research and organizing the effort that finally led to an overhaul of the grading policy – despite the many obstacles thrown out by FCPS officials.

INCREASED CLASS SIZE:  In 2010, the School Board voted to increase class size.  Red Apple Mom readers know class size is a particular sore point for me as my son’s fifth grade class at Spring Hill ES now has 35 students (one student recently went home to Korea), and we have a third grade class with 33 students!   It’s unfair to the kids and the teachers!

INCREASED FEES: Public school became increasingly more expensive in 2010 with new athletic fees, higher parking fees and AP/IB testing fees (now rescinded due to a ruling  by Virginia’s attorney general.) 

PUNITIVE DISCIPLINARY POLICIES: We learned that FCPS’ discipline policies recently contributed to the suicide of a Woodson HS student. The public also learned just how excessively harsh these policies are –“involuntary school transfers”, lack of due process, lack of parent notification and a draconian and aggressive FCPS hearings process that treats Tylenol-takers the same as a drug dealer.  Thanks to the parent advocacy group Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform (FZTR) these policies may finally get reformed.

FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN: Until FDK advocates forced the School Board to address the inequity at 37 of FCPS elementary schools, this issue wasn’t even on FCPS’ agenda this year.

TEACHER CONCERNS: From compensation issues to working conditions, FCPS’ teacher workforce has had it.  The ever-increasing demands of assessments and standardized tests and professional development requirements have taken a big toll.  FCPS’ teacher workforce is demoralized with many teachers saying they don’t have time to teach.

Related Articles:

© 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.

March 19, 2011

Briefly Speaking

Map of Virginia highlighting Fairfax County

Image via Wikipedia

The plaintiff’s attorneys in the case alleging that the Fairfax County School Board violated the Virginia Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act, released their brief as submitted to the Fairfax County Circuit Court last Thursday.

FCPS’ attorneys will submit their brief to the Court this coming week.

The plaintiff’s attorney’s brief runs 15 pages.  Click here to read the entire brief.

Below you will see main points contained in the brief.  To maintain accuracy, I copied the material directly from the plaintiff’s attorney’s document.

  • The outcome of this case will have a tremendous impact, not only on the Clifton community, but also on all residents of Fairfax County and the Commonwealth.  The Fairfax County School Board and other public bodies will see the extent to which it is permissible to discuss public business when the public is not watching.
  • By conducting its deliberations behind closed doors in the days prior to the July 8th vote, the School Board violated Virginia’s Open Meetings Law and committed further violations during the July 8th meeting itself and subsequently violated Petitioner Jill D. Hill’s rights under the VFOIA (Virginia Freedom of Information Act) when she tried to learn why the Board voted to close CES (Clifton Elementary School).
  • The Petitioner asks this Court to intervene – not to substitute its views for those of the Board – but rather to ensure the Petitioner and the Board’s other constituents are afforded their right to observe how “the business of the people is being conducted.”
  • The use of email as a means to converse has become so pervasive that the Supreme Court of Virginia held that Email can constitute an “informal assemblage” under the OML (Open Meetings Law) requiring public notice and an opportunity for the public to observe the transaction of public business.
  • The School Board members sent hundreds of Emails over a few days with intervals as short as 2-4 minutes.  The Board members did not use the Email communications as the functional equivalent of letters.  Rather they used Email to discuss their positions, often Emailing back and forth within a short period of time, and to convince other Board members to vote with them on CES.
  • In addition, the Board members engaged in numerous verbal communications with each other, both in person and by telephone.
  • Evidence that the Board members committed numerous OML violations consists of the Board’s own written words and testimonial admissions.   Petitioner, therefore, anticipates that the Respondent will cling to its spin that individual Emails do not constitute an informal assemblage because they allegedly are not among three or more members in an attempt to distract the Court and hope that it misses the forest for the trees.
  • The record as a whole established that 1.) The Board cannot meet its burden to establish there were not three or more members involved in the written and verbal discussions and 2.) most, if not all School Board members engaged in a series of Email, in person and phone conversations with other members, in which everyone ascertained each others’ positions and certain Board members lobbied for votes.
  • The General Assembly has mandated that VFOIA be “liberally construed to…afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.”  VA Code 2.2-3700.
  • Ms. Bradsher admitted that she knew it would be a violation to “have a conversation” with two or more Board members outside of open meetings. To avoid that, Bradsher was “very careful” to ensure that everyone knew how the other Board members were going to vote by engaging in email exchanges and then forwarding them to other members with the instruction not to forward them any further, at times skirting the letter of the law but violating its purpose, a purpose that was well known to Bradsher and other Board members.
  • The Court should not permit the Board to use these underhanded tactics to avoid public awareness and scrutiny of its actions.
  • Reed asked whether the water report should be publicly posted and Goddard promptly forwarded the well-water report to Smith and Wilson.  Within minutes, Wilson responded that she had checked with Smith and Smith stated that it could wait until after the meeting.
  • Not posting the report clearly violated the VFOIA, especially given the report’s importance to the CES (Clifton Elementary School) votes.  The School Board discussed the report during the meeting, and it had determined during a June 29, 2010 Work Session that “the decision to close or renovate Clifton ES (sic) School should be based on the issues of the reliability of the water supply” and two other factors.
  • Respondent attempts to downgrade this VFOIA violation by noting that (Dean) Tistadt verbally summarized the contents of the report during the meetings.  Nonetheless, withholding a document provided to the Board for its consideration during an open meeting is a violation of the VFOIA.
  • …the Court should not establish new law that a public body can comply with the VFOIA statute by withholding materials and simply summarizing them.
  • In discussing the (water) report’s impact, Bradsher quoted an Email from her daughter, which she received during the meeting, emphasizing how dangerous the water was due to incomplete testing for Radium 228, even though the undisclosed well water testing report indicated a minimal risk of Radium 228 contamination.
  • Ms. Bradsher’s discussion of Radium 228 misled many meeting attendees, including Petitioner Hill, to believe that the well water should still be considered unsafe.
  • Petitioner is “entitled to recover reasonable costs, including costs and reasonable fees for expert witnesses, and attorneys’ fees from the public body if the petitioner substantially prevails on the merit of the case, unless special circumstances would make an award unjust.
  • Respondent committed numerous VFOIA violations when Petitioner sought to avail herself of her rights to access the School Board’s public records.

Related Articles

© 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.

March 16, 2011

Funding Signposts on Teacher Raises & FDK

Good news and bad news for FDK advocates – the Board of Supervisors (BOS) all want FDK, but it seems they don’t want to pay for it.  Based on BOS Chairman Sharon Bulova’s comments at Tuesday’s joint budget meeting with the FCPS School Board, it doesn’t appear that funding from the county for teacher raises will happen either.

Full-Day Kindergarten

There was no mention of Supervisor Gerry Hyland’s proposed amendment to fund Full Day Kindergarten from the Board of Supervisors purported $30 million in surplus funds resulting from unexpected increases in corporate taxes.

Hyland may not have mentioned it because we learned at this meeting that the county does not really have a surplus.  They are, according to the county executive, $26 million in the hole.  Full Day Kindergarten costs $7.3 million.

Supervisors questioned FCPS officials about how big a priority FDK was for the school system.  Dr. Dale told Supervisors he was looking at a three-year implementation for FDK at a cost of $2+ million per year.  That didn’t sit well with Supervisors John Foust or Cathy Hudgins.

Joint Meeting - Board of Supervisors, Superintendent Dale & FCPS School Board

“It is a basic service.  Folks have been expecting it for long time.  It is a matter of equity.  You shouldn’t be looking at three years (to implement FDK),” said Foust.  He added, “In a $2.2 billion budget you shouldn’t be trying to find 2 million – you have to find it all.  Something else might have to give.”

Cathy Hudgins said of FDK, “It’s the foundation of the system and not ‘when we get to it.’”

FCPS repeatedly states that the economic downturn is to blame for not completing the FDK roll-out that began in earnest in 2006.  However, in spite of the recession’s onset, the School Board did, in fact, vote to expand the FLES program (foreign language in the elementary schools).

I’m a dual language speaker and support foreign language instruction.   But if FDK has always been FCPS’ priority, why were they expanding programs that serve only 10% of the student population rather than implement FDK in more schools?  I’m posing the question because several members of the public posed that exact question to FCPS when they voted to expand FLES a few years ago.  Everyone seems to be giving FCPS a pass that the recession is solely to blame for not fully implementing FDK.  It’s not and that is a fact.  They had options.

FDK advocates (and I’m one of them) will have to really turn up the heat on FCPS to make FDK happen this year.  Even then, it may still prove to be an internal budget battle on FCPS’s turf.  At-Large School Board member Tina Hone told Supervisors, “I will be asking to restore summer school before funding the full roll-out of FDK.”

Employee Compensation:

Board of Supervisor Chairman Sharon Bulova didn’t dance around on FCPS’ request for an additional $48 million for employee compensation increases, stating, “There is a major disconnect between our two budgets.”

Bulova has equity concerns for county employees like police, firemen and librarians..  She said, “Is it right for an employee to get an increase on one side of the house when we can’t on the other side of the house?  We aren’t out of the woods yet (on the recession).”

How is the superintendent going to handle this one?    Before parents resurrected the FDK issue, the number one priority for the School Board was staff and teacher raises.  I know for a fact that teacher morale is already low.  I speak to a lot of teachers in my advocacy work and I know their increased workloads are really tough.  The student body brings so many challenges from special ed to non-english speaking and poor students.  In addition, teachers today are faced with an endless flow of assessment and testing requirements.  Our school system is great because of our quality teacher workforce. We have a great curriculum too but without great teachers, the curriculum alone can’t maintain FCPS’ fine reputation.

So here comes the reality check.  The supervisors acknowledged their appreciation of all school employees, but I didn’t hear anything in this meeting to indicate the school system should expect more.  FCPS already receives 53 cents of every county tax dollar as part of the $2.2 Billion FCPS budget.

That means it will be up to taxpayers, parents and teachers to hold FCPS’ feet to the fire in upholding the School Board’s promises on FDK and teacher compensation.

Teachers Rally for Compensation Issues on Tuesday

As Supervisor Foust told Dr. Dale, “Something else may have to give.”  What “gives” still remains to be seen, however, since Dr. Dale has provided no indication to date of how he would pay for FDK and/or employee raises.

Looks for things to heat up soon.  Lots of promises have been made.  It’s also an election year and a number of School Board members have serious campaign challengers.

RELATED ARTICLES

© 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.

March 14, 2011

The “Fear Factor” in FCPS School Discipline

The Fairfax County School Board tackled the Zero Tolerance issue Monday in a work session designed to help members flush out priorities for reform on the school system’s disciplinary policies.

The school system has been under increasing scrutiny that current disciplinary policies are overly punitive.  Media profiles on the recent suicide of high school student Nick Stuban, and another about a middle school student expelled for having an acne medication in her locker, have heightened the public’s calls for reform.

The audience included a plethora of FCPS staff, concerned citizens, dozens of members from the advocacy group Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform and members from Nick Stuban’s family.  Because the room was filled to capacity, several people had to listen from the hallway under the watchful eye of a FCPS security guard.

Work Session Audience

Monday’s discussion was at times tense and emotional.  School Board member Patty Reed made a poignant admission that she is “haunted” by a few of the disciplinary decisions made by the School Board.  “The world is not black and white,” she said.  “I think we made lifetime decisions for kids who made their first mistake.”

Consistency was a frequently used word in the work session.  Board member Tessie Wilson argued that school board members can’t argue for both consistency and special circumstances when it comes to the application of discipline policies.  “You can’t be consistent if each case is judged individually,” Wilson said.

The FCPS disciplinary hearings process has been criticized as unduly harsh.  Students typically do not have parental representation and hearings officers have been judged by many students and families as overly adversarial.  Board member Stu Gibson said officials need to address balance but added, “If we have students committing serious violations of the rules and they won’t admit it, it is up to us and the administration to get to the bottom of what happened – and that is not always pretty.”

At-Large member Tina Hone said she believes there is still a sense of denial among FCPS officials about the hearings process.  “Dr. Dale you have said our hearings are not adversarial – and that is implausible. There is stuff that happens.  I appreciate your honesty Stu (Gibson) – because you are right – they do get adversarial,” Hone said.

Tina Hone & Patty Reed (photo left to right)

Hone also said the core issue is a flawed hearings process that is particularly disastrous for kids who have no previous record, “I believe, that in the hearing office’s point of view, they believe they are showing mercy when they are reassigning a student (to another school).  They think that is mercy.  The community is hearing the kid made one mistake and asking why are they even expelled.  We need to figure out if we can get the hearings office out of that habit.”

The School Board brainstormed a list of their priorities that will be discussed at additional work sessions in April and May.  (These priorities are listed below.)

Superintendent Dale told me that his challenge is to get the School Board to narrow down the priorities discussed today and gain a consensus on the top 3 to 5 issues.   I replied it is key that the School Board’s priorities mesh with the community’s priorities.

Based on all the press coverage of this issue, it seems the community’s immediate priorities are quite clear:  reform the process for first time offenders and introduce parental notification requirements.  The fear permeating through our public schools right now is, “Could my kid be next?  Could my kid be accused of a first-time infraction and kicked out of school for something like bringing an aspirin to school?”

Tackle the fear first school board.  The rest of the discussion will fall into the place. You have to remove the fear first because, sadly, the fear is all too real for FCPS families.

These are among the priorities discussed today by the School Board- NOT IN ORDER OF RANK:

  1. Clarify state mandates about discipline
  2. Address the treatment of first time offenders
  3. Obtain a better collection of data on the zero tolerance issue
  4. Ensure the discipline consequence is commensurate with the infraction
  5. Parent notification when a student is accused of a violation
  6. Maintain a safe and secure environment for all students
  7. Hearings process timeline – make it as short as possible
  8. Consequences of student behavior

Dr. Dale, staff & School Board Review List of Priorities & Discussion Points

Related Articles

© 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.

March 11, 2011

“Race To Nowhere” Documentary Spurring Debate & Solution Possibilities

If you haven’t yet seen the documentary “Race to Nowhere”, please do so as soon as possible.  This critically acclaimed documentary about America’s stressed out teens has a strong and growing grassroots following.  It’s a subject  many students and parents here in uber-performing Fairfax County can relate to and it demonstrates the extreme level of pressure on students of all ages to perform at the top of their game.

When I saw the film last month, I was left with this thought, “When did high school become college?”

My eldest child heads to high school next year.  My parenting approach is way more “Dolphin Mom” than “Tiger Mom”, so I’m not so concerned that I’ll be placing undue pressure on my child to be the best and brightest in school.  Like most parents, I only want my children to be their best and brightest.  But as the film pointed out, stress isn’t always parent-induced.  Kids today are placing huge amounts of stress upon themselves and the kids are primarily blaming school as the source of their stress.

As one of the leaders of FAIRGRADE, I am in contact with thousands of parents and kids.  So often, when I ask students how they like high school, their reply is, “I’m surviving.” I rarely hear, “Oh I really like it,” or “You know, it’s really challenging but I like it.” I never hear, “It’s fun.” Most often, the reply is, “I’m surviving,” followed by a heavy sigh.

I find that really disheartening.  The teen years are such a special time in life and high school should be fun – challenging and rigorous, but fun too.  High school is part of the great American experience.  My european and asian friends envy our American high school system that offers sports, prom, community engagement, great curriculums AND school spirit.

According to this documentary, it appears today’s educational demands are crushing some spirits rather than raising them.

I have yet to meet anyone in Fairfax County who thinks they had it tougher in high school than today’s kids attending FCPS high schools.  It was easier to get into a good college back then.  School budgets were more plentiful so sports and other after-school activities were more readily available.  Economic pressures to pay for college weren’t as intense.  Whacked out zero-tolerance policies didn’t exist.  There wasn’t a constant stream of standardized testing.  Today, however, the high school landscape is drastically different.  So it’s a good thing that the “Race to Nowhere” film is spurring debate about the new dynamic facing today’s school-aged children.

Here in Fairfax County, several advocacy groups and teachers are looking to provide solutions and lessen the stress on school-aged kids – particularly teens.

1. SLEEP has long been advocating for changes to the bell schedule so that teens in Fairfax County can have healthier school start times.  Because Fairfax County is so large, some of our high school students are catching buses well before 6:00am.  Compounding the problem are long bus rides to and from school which results in less free time, less time for completing homework and loss of critical REM sleep for growing teens.  Sleep-deprived teens are far more prone to stress than rested teens.

2. FAIRGRADE has joined another group of parents and teachers in asking FCPS to provide “evidence based research” that justifies the removal of HONORS ALTERNATIVE courses to AP CORE classes (English, Math, Science, Social Studies).  As it stands, most FCPS high schools only offer a two-tiered curriculum – Gen. Ed or AP – even though other equally competitive school districts in the nation offer their students a three-tiered curriculum – Gen. Ed, Honors Alternative to AP and AP.  Students may want the option of taking an Honors alternative AP course or mixing in some Honors courses with just a couple of AP courses rather than a full course load of demanding college-level courses.

3. Lessen Teacher Workload: Teachers in Fairfax County that I work closely with on advocacy issues report that teacher workload expectations ultimately trickle down to a greater workload on students.  The amount of standardized testing and practice testing is extreme.  It has become such a pressure cooker that cluster superintendents repeatedly check to see how much each teacher uses e-cart (Electronic Curriculum Assessment Resource Tool) – FCPS’ web-based learning assessment tool.  If a teacher isn’t using e-cart enough, they reportedly get a call from their cluster superintendent to increase student usage.

This whole thing reminds me of The Lucy Show where Lucy and Ethel get completely overwhelmed boxing chocolates on an ever faster moving assembly line.  The demands of standardized testing may be turning schools into standardized testing factories at the expense of critical learning!  Sure life “ain’t a box of chocolates” but the misery index in Fairfax County seems to be creeping up higher and higher.  Students and teachers clearly need relief.

We parents know it. Students know it.  Teachers know it.  Does our School Board and Superintendent know it?

Several school board members and FCPS administrators have attended screenings of this documentary at area FCPS high schools, so perhaps a real dialogue on these possible solutions is coming.  In the end, we all want successful students and teachers – not stressed out students and teachers.  In the end, we all want a creative and better work and learning environment in our schools.  Change can take a while in big bureaucracies like FCPS.  Students and teachers can’t afford a long wait.

© 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.

    March 6, 2011

    Twinkies and the Fairfax County Public School Lobbyists in Richmond

    Sunday’s Washington Post has an opinion piece urging Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell to sign a bill requiring more gym class in our Virginia elementary schools.  The bill recently passed the General Assembly with huge support – no pun intended.  Lawmakers seem to think this is the solution for getting fat school kids into shape.  I’m with the Fairfax County School Board and Jack Dale in hoping the Governor vetoes this bill.  (FCPS-McDonnell PE Veto Letter 2-24-11-1)

    This is a feel-good bill that in the end causes more problems than it solves.  To begin, it’s another unfunded mandate.  FCPS officials estimate the costs to implement the extra gym classes could run as much $18-$24 million.  FCPS School Board members and Superintendent Dale are right to oppose this bill.

    So why didn’t FCPS lobbyists in Richmond do their job and kill this?  They must have been too busy.  These are the same FCPS lobbyists who helped kill the parent notification bill which would have required parental notification of any student who violates a school board policy or the compulsory attendance requirements when such a violation “is likely to” result in the student’s suspension or the filing of a court petition.

    It’s just a tad ironic that FCPS lobbyists failed to kill a bill that will potentially cost Fairfax County taxpayers millions of dollars, but they easily killed a bill that would have notified parents when their children get into trouble at school.   It’s even more ironic that the bill was sponsored by former School Board member turned Delegate Kaye Kory.  Kory was working for parents and taxpayers while the taxpayer funded, FCPS lobbyists worked against the interests of parents and students.

    Maybe we ought to fire the FCPS lobbyists and use those savings to pay for the new gym class mandate!  Unfortunately though, no amount of gym is going to get help obese children if they are still packing Twinkies in their lunchbox and eating more junk at home!

    Full Day Kindergarten Update: Word on the street is that Board of Supervisor Gerry Hyland-Mount Vernon district will submit an amendment to fully fund Full-Day Kindergarten ($8 million) for the remaining 37 FCPS elementary schools.

    © 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.

    March 4, 2011

    A New Low for FCPS – Attack the Parent Who Brought the Case to Trial

    The judge heard the final arguments yesterday in the case alleging that Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) violated the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  For anyone new to this issue, the case focuses on events related to the School Board’s vote last summer to close Clifton Elementary School.

    Several people have asked for my personal observations about this trial.  I am not going to speculate how the judge is going to decide this case.  However, I will say the following:  I was deeply disturbed by the aggressive approach FCPS’ attorney used to question the parent who brought this case forward.  I was also disturbed by their attempt to bring up the name of another parent whose name appears on the FOIA’d emails but who is not a plaintiff in this case.  The FCPS lawyer’s approach demonstrated a new low for FCPS.  Parents aren’t on trial.  FCPS is.

    The parent who filed this case did so because it is the only legal recourse available.  She is simply following the legal procedures made available by the Virginia General Assembly in accordance with FOIA.  Furthermore, it should be noted that Fairfax County has no appeals process when the public finds itself in wide disagreement with a vote made by the FCPS School Board.  The parent who filed this suit did so because she believes the vote to close Clifton ES was not a transparent process and because she alleges FCPS violated her rights for accessing public information and public documents.  If she wins, and I hope she does, the public will owe this brave woman, and her supporters,  a debt of gratitude!

    As I sat in Court yesterday, I was struck by the thoughtful and probing questions the judge presented to both sides in this case.  It left me thinking that if our School Board had demonstrated the same thoughtfulness by completely vetting and addressing the public’s concerns – to the public’s satisfaction – then I wouldn’t be sitting in that courtroom and I wouldn’t be anxious about how much the School Board’s rush to a vote will eventually cost taxpayers in terms of legal fees.

    Here’s my summary of the proceedings and arguments yesterday:

    ALLEGED OPEN MEETINGS LAW VIOLATIONS VIA EMAIL:

    The arguments focused on the emails sent between School Board members in the days leading up to the vote and during the meeting itself.  The plaintiff’s attorney argued that email itself constitutes a meeting if email “rises to the level of a conversation.”

    Plaintiff’s Attorney:

    “There is a wide web of emails.  There are open meetings violations. This isn’t just receiving information.  This was deliberative information.  The deliberations already occurred before the School Board meeting (to close Clifton ES).”

    To further prove their point, plaintiff’s attorney presented a document demonstrating what they describe as a “wide web of emails” including timelines showing what they allege is a “frenzy” of emails between School Board members concerning the Clifton issue.  (6-21-10 Email Timeline, 7-1-10 thru 7-8-10 Email Timeline, 7-8-10 Email Timeline – Well Results)

    Plaintiff’s attorney also presented several legal cases to the judge arguing the cases demonstrate other Court rulings that serial emails violate the Open Meetings Law. (see below under additional materials)

    The FCPS attorney argued that emails do not constitute “a meeting within a meeting.”

    FCPS’ Attorney:

    “They (plaintiffs) are trying to establish that members can’t speak one to one except in a meeting – treating them as jurors.  That’s just nuts.  Where are the emails that show three or more members?”

    JUDGE:

    “You are saying it doesn’t matter what the content is?”

    FCPS’ Attorney:

    “There is a lot of email back and forth and it is not a judicial setting.  They are legislators. Which email shows the meeting?  They can’t answer your question judge.  The idea that members can’t talk about their positions – members of public bodies send memos to each other all the time. It’s not the way it works and never has.”

    At this point, the FCPS Attorney presented the judge with a Flow Chart that he said is the criteria the judge should use for determining if there are FOIA violations.

    ALLEGED OPEN MEETINGS LAW VIOLATIONS VIA SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER REMOTE PARTICIPATION:

    (Full disclosure here on my part.  I worked on Patty Reed’s ‘09 campaign for School Board.)

    School Board Member Patty Reed was a focal point in yesterday’s arguments too because she was absent for the actual vote but was following the proceedings LIVE via the FCPS-provided webstream.  It was Patty Reed who emailed the Clerk of the Board and her fellow Board members asking if FCPS Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt’s memo concerning the Clifton ES well water results was being made available to the public.

    The Plaintiff’s attorney argued that Patty’s email indicates she was a participant in the meeting even though she wasn’t physically present.

    Plaintiff’s Attorney:

    “Reed is listed as absent.  She accessed the hearing live and received the well results.  She knew it was an important piece of information for the public to know about and she emailed the Clerk of the Board.  As a matter of fact, she was a participant in this process and there are very specific rules in FOIA about members and participation.  FOIA says that remote locations should be accessible to the public.  We are not arguing the intent to violate it, but she did.  It comes down to, ‘How do you interpret participation?’”  (Reed Email to Clerk of School Board re: Well ResultsReed/Tistadt Email on Well Results)

    FCPS’ attorney called this issue “the elephant in the room.”

    FCPS’ Attorney:

    “The email from Patty Reed to Pam Goddard (Clerk of the Board) clearly is not participation.  She did not advocate her position – did not communicate with more than two members.   She just watched the hearing.  She is also one of the dissenters who wanted to keep Clifton ES open.  The irony abounds.”

    ALLEGED FOIA VIOLATIONS OF EMAIL:

    Plaintiff’s attorney’s argued that the evidence they produced to the Court demonstrate numerous, documented FOIA violations and that FCPS had full knowledge of FOIA rules.

    Plaintiff’s Attorney:

    “This School Board is lawyered up.  They had legal counsel advising them the entire way. What they did, they did with knowledge.  We cannot prove intent because you can’t, but they had knowledge.”

    JUDGE:

    “Are you counting any email between one Board member to another as a FOIA violation?”

    Plaintiff’s Attorney:

    “If they are back and forth conversations and responses, then you get into violations.  Here we saw a frenzy of emails between Members and some forwarded one to another and some one to one.  In reality, everyone knew each other’s positions based on phone calls and emails (before the meeting).”

    The plaintiff’s attorney also argued that FCPS has demonstrated undue delays for failing to provide FOIA’d documents that another judge has already compelled FCPS to produce.

    FCPS’ attorneys said that claims FCPS has omitted documents is an overreach.

    FCPS’ Attorney:

    “Some 5000 records have been produced by FCPS to date.  That is quite substantial.  The only documents withheld are those identified as exempt.  We are fine for an in camera review by the Court of the additional documents.”

    FCPS’ Attorneys then argued that the Court should decide the main case immediately.  Plaintiff’s attorney asked, “Why the rush to judgment?  We have thrown a lot at the Court in a short time so a limited briefing is fair.”

    The judge agreed.

    So the next step now is that the plaintiff’s attorneys have until close of business (COB) on March 17th to submit a post-trial brief to the judge of no more than 15 pages.   FCPS’ attorneys have until (COB) on March 28th to submit their post-trial brief of no more than 15 pages.

    Then we wait for a ruling from the judge.  That could take between two weeks to three months from the date the judge receives FCPS’ post-trial brief.

    ADDITIONAL MATERIALS

    © 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.

      March 2, 2011

      Highlights from Fairfax County School Board Trial

      I arrived to court this morning about an hour late due to a possible case of strep in my house.

      Fortunately, my daughter got the “all clear” to attend school and I made it in time for the bulk of School Board member Liz Bradsher’s testimony.

      Liz Bradsher

      The only highlight I apparently missed was Bradsher drawing a blank when asked by the plaintiff’s attorney how many people serve on the Fairfax County School Board.  (For future reference, that would be 12.)

      Today’s trial was about as exciting as – well as a School Board meeting.  There were no smoking guns, and the closest we came to a Denny Crane moment was how well dressed the FCPS attorney appears.

      We did learn a couple of interesting factoids though.  Apparently School Board Chair Kathy Smith and School Board member Tessie Wilson don’t feel that emails from Dean Tistadt, Chief Operating Officer for Fairfax County Public Schools, warrant their attention during School Board meetings.

      On the night of the vote to close Clifton ES last July, one of the focal points for the discussion was a report about the safety of the Clifton ES well.  Tistadt sent a detailed email to School Board members during that meeting containing important test results that showed the well was safe and not radioactive as predicted.

      The plaintiff’s attorneys asked Chairman Kathy Smith and Board member Tessie Wilson about Tistadt’s email today.

      Plaintiff AttorneyDid you receive an email from Dean Tistadt?

      Tessie Wilson

      Tessie Wilson: I do not recall seeing the email.

      Plaintiff Attorney: Please turn to page 2, exhibit 65.

      Tessie Wilson: I do not recall seeing this email.  I don’t always read emails that come during a meeting.

      Plaintiff Attorney: Do you recall receiving this email from Dean Tistadt?

      Kathy Smith

      Kathy Smith: I recall Tessie Wilson showing it to me.

      Plaintiff Attorney: Did you read it?

      Kathy Smith: No.

      For the record, Dean Tistadt did speak at the School Board meeting that same night and provided some of the details about the well’s test results to School Board members in person.  He did not, however, cover all of the issues that might have been helpful to School Board members in deciding whether or not to close Clifton ES.

      During Liz Bradsher’s testimony in court, she testified that the vote to close Clifton ES, was “a serious vote.”  Serious indeed.  This was a vote to close one of FCPS’ most successful elementary schools.  So why couldn’t Smith and Wilson read an email from one of FCPS’ highest ranking officials when they knew Tistadt was in receipt of test results that were pertinent to the issue they were voting on that evening?

      Finally, here’s another factoid we learned today.  If you file a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) with FCPS, you won’t get a reply until FCPS consults with their legal counsel first.  I felt that is worth noting because as we have seen with FCPS’ current discipline policies, FCPS students aren’t lavished the same legal attention.  A student can be questioned without a parent present and bringing an attorney into the situation can make it even worse for the student.  But a FOIA request – now that’s a different story.  We learned today that FOIA requests get the best FCPS legal attention that taxpayer money can buy!

      Closing arguments in the trial finish Thursday morning and I’ll provide a wrap-up of those points tomorrow.  Don’t expect an immediate verdict though.  Attorneys tell me each side will likely present a post-trial brief to the judge summarizing their side of the case.  The judge may then rule from the bench or issue a written opinion.  Either option could take between two weeks to three months.

      Meantime, can someone FOIA just how much FCPS is spending on this case?  I’d like to know how much “transparency” or the “lack of transparency” – depending on this judge’s ruling – actually costs in this county!

      Trial Tidbit: FCPS’ law firm includes a familiar face – former School Board Member Phil Niedzielski-Eichner’s daughter is assisting the defense team.

      © 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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