Saturday, August 29, 2015

Mt. Daniel, Technology Audits, STEAM, and Advisory Committees – the August 25 School Board Meeting

I apologize for the delay in getting out a recap of the August 25 School Board meeting.  I wasn’t able to attend in person, and complied this summary from review of the meeting after it took place.  As always, my summary does not reflect everything that was discussed, but includes things I hope you find useful to know.

Many of you are interested in the Mt. Daniel construction and its timing. The current schools’ Mission, Vision and Strategies  excerpt from the Triennial Plan, and the Staff Work Plan, continue to call for completion of Mt. Daniel construction in Oct. 2016.  However, in the Aug. 25 meeting Dr. Jones noted that this depends on obtaining approval from Fairfax County on Sept. 17, and then timely issuance of permits, both of which are far from certain it seems to me.  Dr. Jones said she would update the Board at the next meeting about progress.  Also, the Parents’ Night for Mt. Daniel isn’t until October this year, so Dr. Jones plans to update the parents then.  There wasn’t any discussion of the likelihood of approval of the construction by Fairfax County, or Plan B if approval cannot be obtained.

I reported to everyone earlier that at a recent meeting the School Board had expressed desire for an independent audit of technology in the schools.  The school administration pushed back on this on Aug. 25, including language about an audit in the Staff Work Plan but only to the effect that the audit be “consider[ed]” by June 2016 “as deemed appropriate after review.”  That sure sounds like a fancy way of saying “we are not going to do this” to me.  The objections seem to be cost and lack of clear scope for the audit – that said, one Board member indicated that an audit is a priority, and that the scope should be broad and include technology infrastructure and security (hooray!).  In my opinion, this is a significant priority to ensure that the school system understands the risks and that resources (people and money) are being directed to the most important risks. 

No action was taken by the Board on either the Mission/Vision/Strategies document or the Staff Work Plan.  The proposed revisions will be presented for vote at the next meeting.

The meeting began with a discussion of the STEAM action strategies for each school; however, I can only mention what Jessie Thackrey and Mt. Daniel said because only part of the session was recorded  (I would have loved to attend the tour of the GM Makerspace that took place at the meeting – pictures are on the School Board website).  Jessie Thackrey talked about adding science and math to report cards, building the Mt. Daniel outdoor classroom, and integrating arts and early literacy.  Mt. Daniel also talked about the progress it had made even though it lacks a STEAM classroom.  It discussed the outdoor classroom, continuing curriculum enhancements, learning from other programs, and volunteer support such as from George Mason technology students.  The degree of volunteer assistance in just these two programs was clear and impressive, from Eagle Scouts to parents, along with teacher and staff efforts.  The Board was given a copy of the May draft STEAM report, which is here:$file/2015FCCPSSTEAMReport.pdf

The largest part of the meeting concerned the revision of a number of Board policies, with the lion’s share being devoted to the review of the policy on advisory committees (5.12).  A key part of the discussion concerned a letter from two School Board Candidates – Alison Kutchma and Becky Smerdon – who raised objections to the proposed changes and asked that they not be approved.  Their objections related to restrictions on the independence of advisory committees.$file/Dear%20School%20Board%20Members%20Policy%205.12.pdf.  The view of the Board was that advisory committees are not independent, but rather advise the Board on matters assigned to the committee by the Board, and that the law prohibits advisory committees from undertaking certain activities including any involving the access to personal information.  The Board approved the policy with a few changes. 

On the question of independence, I haven’t yet dug into the Virginia Laws concerning advisory committees and their operation, but it seems to me that citizen concerns about a committee’s “independence” are part of the greater issue of transparency and participation.  People want independence for parent and stakeholder groups because they don’t feel they are being heard by the School Administration, and to a lesser extent the Board, and therefore want an independent voice that must be heard.  It seems to me that even greater efforts regarding transparency and participation must be made, regardless of what policy 5.12 says.

There was also a discussion about using this policy to limit the recording of advisory committee meetings, but with input from legal counsel the Board did not impose new restrictions on recording, which I think is a wise decision. 

In addition, there were a couple of things in the advisory committee policy that concern me.  First, it appears that all the committees advise and/or aid the Board or the Board and Superintendent, except the Special Education Advisory Committee, which advises the Board “through the Superintendent.”  [Note, the ESOL committee has one similar advisory role through the Superintendent, but also advises the Board directly.]  Second as the Kutchma/Smerdon letter points out, advisory committee members are asked to sign the School Board Code of Civility.  I am a big supporter of civility, but one part of that code provides that the signer will work “to delegate authority for the administration of schools to the superintendent.”  Of course the Superintendent administers the schools, but why is that an issue of civility?  And why doesn’t that provision say, if it is going to say anything, that the Board should “take care that [the public schools] are conducted according to law and with the utmost efficiency,” which is a duty of the School Board required by law?  These provisions ought to be changed.

Finally, the Board reviewed draft priorities to be provided each advisory committee, which will be submitted to the committee chairs and co-chairs for comment, with possible adoption at the next meeting.

As always, please let me know any questions or comments.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

RFP Information Meeting

I have reviewed the materials from the information meeting on the RFP for the GM/MEH project and there isn't much new, but the materials are a very useful summary.

The big news is that, as FCCPS said, attendance was good.  About 59 people attended, from about 50 organizations.

There is a short deck on the project and the background for the project:

Last, although not new, the deck emphasizes what is desired for the 10 acres of commercial development:

Project Scope of Work: Redevelop a Portion of the Parcels
(RFP: Page 4, Section 2.3 C)
C. Redevelop up to 10.38 acres of the Parcels for commercial uses, or a mix of uses that is significantly commercial, in a manner that: (i) maximizes the financial value of the property to the City and the School Board…(ii) maximizes the net fiscal impact to the City through high-quality commercial uses…(iii) features outstanding design, including exemplary architecture, pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets with effective transportation improvements for access to, from, and through the site, lively public and
commercial spaces with a sense of place, environmentally sustainable buildings and infrastructure, and other enhancements to the Parcels that will benefit the City and surrounding community

RFP Information Meeting

According to the FCCPS, there was a good turnout for the information meeting for developers about the RFP.  Such a meeting introduces the RFP and can provide useful background.

I understand some developers have been attending city meetings where the RFP was discussed, and that provides additional evidence of interest.  The big day will be Oct. 30 when the initial proposals are due.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New Teachers

FCCPS has posted the new staff - 32 total - for this coming year, with pictures!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Transparency and Closed School Board Meetings

Transparency is a critical issue for our schools and School Board – the public and parents must have access to the information they need to make informed decisions to help their community and participate in the education of their kids.  Folks are concerned about transparency despite ongoing efforts of the schools to communicate with the public – the perception exists that not enough information is shared early enough, and in a way that can be understood.  This perception results from many things, for example, most people were surprised both when the Mr. Daniel construction project ran into opposition, and then when the Fairfax County Planning Commission decision was deferred until after the start of the school year this fall.

Another case: on February 24, 64 families wrote the School Administration and Board regarding concerns about the use of technology, including Internet safety.  After some technology meetings, the School Board then on June 16 held a closed session identified on the agenda as “Technology” – a session that lasted about an hour and 45 minutes.  The closed session concerned cybersecurity, which the law allows to be closed in certain cases to protect the security of school systems, but that the meeting was held shortly after the parents’ letter, for such a long period, and with little being shared about it, fed a perception of secrecy.  Perhaps some of that discussion could have been open to the public.

I remember a few years ago, when one of our kids was being recognized with other students by the City Council for art projects.  The Council held a closed session first, and while a bunch of tired kids and parents sat waiting, with the kids falling asleep in the Council Chambers, one kid said something like “It’s Falls Church, how much can there be to discuss in private?”

Closed meetings are only a tiny part of the question of transparency, with access to usable information the most important point.  But as a practical matter, it is already difficult to keep up with the things that are happening in the schools and before the Board – and holding frequent closed meetings makes that more difficult.   For people who do want to attend meetings, having a closed session at the start can be a problem because the current practice is not to identify in advance how long a closed session will be, and so you don’t know when to arrive.  Frequent closed sessions of indeterminate length also further a perception of secrecy, even if that is inaccurate.

In the last few months, I have spent a fair amount of time sitting in the hall outside a closed School Board meeting.  Because I am very concerned about transparency and making sure the public and parents can participate in school governance, I decided to take a look at how School Board practices regarding closed meetings have changed over time.   Bottom line – the number of closed meetings has spiked this year, although there is an explanation (see below).  To address the recent increase in the amount of closed meetings, and the perception that creates, I suggest that the School Board (1) hold closed meetings only when it is required or strictly necessary – meetings should not be closed simply because it is possible to close the meeting, (2) provide as full an explanation as possible of the reason for closing a meeting, and (3) identify in advance how long the closed session will be and stick to that.

I looked at School Board meetings going back to the start of 2010, and whether a particular School Board meeting, joint meeting, or hearing identified by the Board’s website had a “closed session” – that is, whether any part of the meeting was closed to the public – and the reason the Board stated for closing the session.  Of course, it would be better to look at the total time in closed session, because having a five-minute closed discussion is different from a two-hour closed discussion, but I don’t think I have access to that data. 

The data shows, first, that the most common reason meetings are closed is to deal with personnel issues.  Meetings can be closed for more than one reason, but in the significant majority of cases, one of the reasons or the only reason was to discuss confidential personnel issues.  The other most common reasons were discussion of student matters, real property (that is, school land and buildings), and legal matters.  A few other issues such as the protection of privacy, security, public contracts, and proposals also were identified.   Sometimes the description of the reason for closing is pretty good, and other times sparse, although the School Board has become better at this – there were two meetings back in 2011 where the stated reason for closing the meeting was to discuss “Personnel under Section 2.2-3711 (A)(1), in particular:” with nothing more.  Some explanation of the reason for closing is now generally included in the motion to close the meeting.

Second, until this year, the School Board had been holding fewer meetings that were closed or closed in part than in the past.  In 2010 and 2011, the Board had a closed session about 80% of the time (84% in 2010 and 78% in 2011), with the number of closed meetings driven by the number of personnel discussions, which took place in about 70% of meetings (68% in 2010 and 72% in 2011) (again, topics other than personnel were also discussed in some of those meetings – if anyone is interested I can provide that data).  The board reduced the number of meetings in which personnel issues were discussed in 2012, and again in 2013, so that the number of meetings closed in part due to personnel issues fell from 70% to about 50%.  That significantly reduced the amount of meetings that were closed for any reason, also to about 50% (52% in 2012, 48% in 2013, and 44% in 2014), because during those years there were very few meetings where personnel wasn’t one of the reasons the meeting was closed – the number of closed meetings where personnel wasn’t discussed fell from 4 to 2 to 1 between 2012 and 2014.

This year, 2015, there was a huge jump in the number of meetings closed for at least part of the time – the percentage has risen all the way back to 80% from 50%.  However, this wasn’t because of discussion of personnel issues, which has stayed at roughly the same percentage as from 2012-14.  But this year 8 meetings out of 25 have been closed without any discussion of personnel issues – more than the prior three years combined, and it is only August.  The rise in the number of closed meetings was instead caused primarily by two things – the unsolicited PPEA proposal and the request for proposals (RFP) under the PPEA to develop the George Mason property.  These reasons appear to the main or only reason 7 the meetings were closed.  The remaining and eighth meeting was focused on cybersecurity (that’s the meeting I mentioned at the start).  [Note: the PPEA is the law that allows for solicitation of innovative proposals for schools, and the acceptance of unsolicited proposals.]

What do we take from this?  Most of the jump took place because the discussion of “PPEA” issues, and the law requires confidentiality for perhaps much of that discussion.   Regardless, my subjective impression, and that of others, is that more may be discussed in closed session that is necessary.   I have no doubt about the ethics of any school board member, who are all exemplary public servants who sacrifice a lot for our community.   But I suspect that there are some times when a subject that can be discussed in closed session can also be discussed in open session, and the public would benefit.  The past few years have included the discussion of some sensitive subjects, without a rise in the percentage of closed meetings.  One example from this year is the technology/cybersecurity meeting on June 16: we may not want the public to hear a specific discussion of vulnerabilities in our school networks, but general reporting of the types and numbers of incidents that have happened would be very useful to the public and parents.  In cases like this, setting aside a specific and limited amount of time for a presentation and questions, with any further discussion taking place in open session, would be a good approach.

In short: don’t close meetings because it is possible, but only because it is required.  When meetings are closed, provide as full an explanation as possible of the reason for closing the meeting, and identify in advance how long the closed session will be.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

SOL Test Results

Hi everyone. Here is the FCNP story on the SOL test results for Falls Church City. Congratulations to all our great teachers and the hard work of students. Now let's keep improving the other, and even more important elements of our school system.…/f-c-schools-top-region-in-annual-sol-rep…/

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Mt. Daniel Update, and Other Stuff

Tonight, Aug. 11, I attended the School Board meeting until the second closed session started (which was the final agenda item).  Here are some of the more significant points.

Mt. Daniel

Toni Jones said (the first time I have heard this) that starting construction on Mt. Daniel mid-year was a possibility.  I spoke to her on a break and she said that if the Fairfax County Planning Commission approves the Mt. Daniel construction, it is feasible (if permits are granted in time) for the demolition of half of Mt. Daniel to take place over the Winter break and for trailers to be brought in, starting construction in the middle of the year.  She said a plan has been developed and is feasible.

In other news on Mt. Daniel, FCCPS is soliciting bids for food preparation services for Mt. Daniel for the entire year, assuming that the cafeteria may be demolished as part of the construction.  Also, the HVAC work has been completed and the Mt. Daniel administrative offices will start to move back into the school in the next few days, with teachers also being allowed to move back in early.  Dr. Jones said the contractor has cleaned the building, made it “pristine,” and replaced carpet and tile where needed.

Thomas Jefferson High School

As you may know, up to three students per year may attend the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.  The contract allowing them to do so was signed by Dr. Jones on July 15.  The cost to the City is $16,074 per student for freshmen and $14,000 sophomores, juniors and seniors (the extra cost for freshmen is related to capital costs).  However, the students attending this school reduce the FCCPS student population (presumably reducing marginal costs).

Athletics Safety

A School Board member raised whether FCCPS should suggest rule chances to Virginia’s statewide rules on athletics, motivated by concern (I think) as to whether headgear should be required for girl’s lacrosse and perhaps field hockey.  The FCCPS staff will look at the question.

Information Technology and Security

At the suggestion of a School Board member, the FCCPS staff will examine the cost to do periodic third-party audits of FCCPS information technology and cybersecurity practices.

Please let me know if you have further questions or comments.


SOL Test Results Released

The Virginia Dept of Education has released the SOL test results for the 2014-2015 school year - they are available here: You can also find a summary of the high level results (thanks, John Brett) for FCCPS here:

I'll need to spend some time with the data, but here is a quick summary of the FCCPS-wide results. First, passage rates for the all-students group rose in English Reading, English Writing, and History and Social Studies, stayed the same in Math, and dropped one point in Science.  All were in the 90s with both Math and Science at 90.

Economically-disadvantaged students had some significant jumps and a drop of only one point in Mathematics.

Students with disabilities had a significant jump in English Writing, from 58 to 72, and a significant drop in Science, from 69 to 59.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Mark your Calendars

The next Community Issues Forum where candidate for the CIty Council and School Board will be invited to speak has been set for October 8. I hope to see you there!

Community Issues Forum

The video from the candidates for City Council and School Board has been posted. Thank you Falls Church Community Television. I hope you find it useful.

Letter to the Editor

A few thoughts on public participation in the GM/MEH RFP.…/letters-to-the-editor-city-should-involv…/

FCCTV Campaign Videos

Hey everyone. I see that FCCTV has posted the "campaign videos" for Erin Gill, Letty Hardi, and me. Here are the links: