Candidates seeking the Dranesville District seat on the Fairfax County School Board gave distinctly different views Oct. 11 at a McLean Citizens Association forum.
Republican-endorsed Paul Bartkowski, an attorney who represented on a pro-bono basis three clients suing the School Board to stop continuation of its mask mandate, said he wanted to improve Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) academics, scrap policies with political agendas and listen to parents who long have been ignored by the School Board.
“The board is made up of 12 people of one political party, one political persuasion,” he said. “They all vote in lockstep to continue infusing this political agenda at the expense of academic merit.”
Democrat-endorsed Robyn Lady, who recently retired after 27 years with the school system, said her experience and skill set made her a “perfect match” for the job of School Board member.
“I want to, as a member of the board, refocus on teaching and learning,” Lady said. “I want to get back high expectations for all students.”
MCA Transportation Committee chairman Glenn Harris moderated the forum, held at the McLean Community Center. The candidates, who are seeking to succeed retiring School Board member Elaine Tholen (Dranesville District), answered a query about McLean High overcrowding.
Bartkowski said McLean High not only was overcrowded, but had “abysmal” facilities, and that this was due to an “incompetent” School Board. He supported expanding the school to accommodate more students and examining other measures to address overcrowding.
Lady favored using an outside auditor to examine how the school system creates its capital-improvement plan and prioritize projects using input from people representing every county high school. For now, families with students attending McLean High should be allowed to transfer to Langley or Herndon high schools instead, she said.
Regarding school security, Lady supported banning assault weapons and said “red flag” laws, which allow temporary confiscation of firearms if people exhibit threatening behavior, have proved useful. Adding metal detectors and limiting the number of school entrances also could reduce the risk of shootings, she said.
Bartkowski said armed school-resource officers should be part of that equation and could be financed easily from the school system’s $3.5 billion budget.
Asked about increasing teacher pay and other steps to improve recruitment and retention, Bartkowski supported higher teacher salaries and especially rewarding and attracting excellent educators.
“We have the money to do it,” he said. “A lot of the money is going towards administrators, it’s going towards bureaucrats in the Fairfax County Government Center . . . Those bureaucrats not only are taking a lot of money that we could be spending on people that actually educate the kids, they are then creating paperwork for teachers to fill out and it frustrates teachers.”
Lady opposed methods being used to bridge the teacher shortage, including hiring educators who are career-switchers, have provisional licenses or who just got out of college and are learning on the job after taking a few pedagogy courses.
Officials need to look at tuition reimbursements and student-loan forgiveness for those who commit to teaching in Virginia’s public schools for a certain number of years, Lady said. FCPS also should consider retention and longevity bonuses, she said.
Queried about handling principal complaints and investigating higher teacher attrition at some schools, Lady said she would take the complaints seriously.
“We have some bad principals,” she said. “We have some people who’ve been protected. I will tell you that as a woman in Fairfax County Public Schools, for years we have been a good-old-boys network because a lot of the people who’ve been protected, sadly, have been white men.”
Bartkowski agreed the School Board should deal with problematic principals and reduce teacher attrition. The board for years has been run by Democratic endorsees and needs to be shaken up, he said.
“It takes an outsider, it takes a parent who’s lived it and who’s seen it with just the simple common sense to say, ‘We need to fix these problems,’” he said.
On a question about the accuracy of FCPS enrollment projections, Bartkowski stressed the need for accurate figures and said “rank incompetence” was behind overcrowding at McLean High and Kent Gardens Elementary. The dearth of elementary-age students entering FCPS might be caused by wealthy parents enrolling their children in private schools instead, he added.
“That’s something that we certainly need to reverse and we need to make the schools as excellent as they can be so that people are choosing Fairfax County Public Schools and getting a return on the hefty tax bill that they pay,” Bartkowski said.
Lady said the FCPS central office routinely underestimates enrollment and that most of the system’s renovated schools are overcrowded from the moment they reopen.
Asked which administrative positions they would eliminate and whether employees who create and implement curricula should be required to work as substitute teachers once a month to learn which practices work best, Lady said central-office employees’ duties should be evaluated and that serving as substitute teachers could benefit them.
“I think the disconnect between central office and boots on the ground is a chasm that needs to be closed,” she said.
Bartkowski said the school system’s budget requires comprehensive reform.
“We need to start at zero and say which of these people do we really need,” he said. “Those that are unnecessary, we need to get rid of them. We need to focus that money on teaching the kids. It’s just that simple. It’s a matter of the will to do it and who has that will. The School Board right now certainly does not.”
Bartkowski closed by citing examples from his own family, saying education helps people fulfill the American dream.
“There’s a lot of people in Dranesville that have the same dream and we are squandering it by taking our eye off the ball of allowing these kids to achieve everything that they can, and I’m here to reverse it.”
Lady also told family educational anecdotes, saying she had gone into the field because of her belief in the transformative power of college education.
“I believe that every student who enters into our doorways deserves to be held to high expectations, deserves great teachers and deserves people who believe in them and push them forward,” she said.
To view the MCA forum for Dranesville District candidates for School Board, go to the 55:30 mark at https://bfc-demo.s3.amazonaws.com/MCA/20231012+-+MCA+Candidate+Debate.mp4.