Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: The Fate of the Schools in the City of Falls Church

On Tuesday, the Falls Church City Schools welcomed more than 2,100 students back to school! However with fewer resources, more students, and higher academic expectations, it is not business as usual. Now, more than ever before, the School Board is asking everyone, including ourselves, to do more with less.

Since the City of Falls Church’s emancipation from Fairfax County to forge new schools, our community has been defined by excellence and independence. As such, mere maintenance of the status quo is not an acceptable goal for this School Board. To remain truly exceptional, our schools must continually evolve, improve, and aggressively pursue reforms.

In Virginia, the authority and responsibility to determine the direction of education firmly rests with the School Board. The Virginia Constitution, Code of Virginia, General Assembly, and State Board of Education reserve extensive powers to local school boards. As such, Board members are independently elected, directly accountable to voters, and sworn-in as officers of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The School Board can’t rest on the laurels of past successes

Understanding the Board’s authority is especially important when making key decisions on staffing, salaries, facilities, academic programs, policies, and budget. Contrary to common misconception, the City Council has no legal authority to “approve” the Board’s budget, exercise line-item veto, or make any educational decisions. Currently, however, the Board relies on Council for a transfer of City funds and to keep the City’s finances, debt limits, and overall fiscal health in order. In other communities, School Boards also exercise the right to set tax rates, oversee construction bonds, and participate in revenue-sharing agreements to ensure the independence and quality of the schools.

While clear lines of authority are essential, proper process and planning are equally as important. Recently, the Board developed and unanimously adopted a consensus-based “Work Plan” or to-do list. While it was time consuming to develop a unified plan, the process and product are essential to effectively govern, stay focused, and achieve results. Over the next 18 months, the Board plans to accomplish the following:

• Provide every student with a rigorous, world-class education;

• Develop a responsible budget to ensure the independence and ongoing excellence of our schools;

• Ensure high-quality school buildings capable of supporting educational goals and accommodating growing student populations;

• Promote effective Board governance;

• Improve communications with the community; and

• Modernize human capital policies to link teacher and administrator evaluations to student performance.

In coming weeks, the Board will share more information on each of these goals, as well as seek your input. Until that time, I want to highlight a few important points.
Budget: Given the strained economic climate, the merry-go-round budget debates must end once and for all through a cooperative, honest, transparent, and ultimately, unified dialogue between the Board, City Council, and the public. The School Board is ready and eager to work with Council to develop a multi-year funding formula to stabilize school operations and capital needs. Now is the time to move beyond platitudes and take action to secure the future of our schools.
Academics: While our schools have a rich track record of excellence, the Board can’t rest on the laurels of past successes. Nor can the Board, or community, accept and tolerate an achievement gap where segments of students do not pass basic proficiency tests. Every student, regardless of ethnicity, country of origin, gender, language, or barrier, should succeed in our schools and be provided a challenging world-class education. To this end, the Board is overseeing the implementation of a new data system to monitor students’ academic growth. The new data system will be our single most powerful accountability tool to ensure that every student succeeds and achieves their potential.

Facilities: Based on an exhaustive study, the current school buildings are quickly becoming insufficient to support our academic goals. Buildings are cramped, outdated, energy hogs – particularly in the elementary grades. Additionally, the current grade configuration is not developmentally appropriate. The biggest hurdle to addressing school facilities is not money, but rather the process. The City’s capital planning process is so badly broken and distorted that it borders on fiscal irresponsibility. Our elected and appointed officials can fix this problem; the School Board is ready.

In the knowledge-based global economy, the road to economic prosperity is paved by education. The world’s economic powers and economically hungry communities are heavily investing and sprinting to upgrade their education system. Many are quickly emerging, even surpassing, American schools. Standing still, or just keeping-pace, is a sure fire way to get lapped in the global economy.

At this critical time in our City, the School Board has a comprehensive plan and vision to secure the excellence, independence, and ongoing reform of our schools. But to make this a reality, we need your help. Please continue to support and provide your input to the School Board to ensure that our schools remain a source of pride for all city residents.

 


 

Joan Wodiska is the chair of the Falls Church City School Board.


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