Fairfax Schools Pick Touts Teamwork
Board Confirmation of Superintendent Is Expected Tomorrow
By S. Mitra Kalita and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page B08
The man tapped to be Fairfax County's next schools superintendent assured parents, educators, politicians and business leaders yesterday that his approach to education and leadership is a collaborative one and that he intends to turn to them repeatedly during his tenure.
Jack D. Dale, 55, held hours of meetings with various interest groups for the first time since the news surfaced that he was the School Board's choice for the job. Pending background checks, Dale, the longtime superintendent of Frederick County schools, will be offered a contract tomorrow, officials said.
"I want greater collaboration with all the stakeholders," Dale said. "Fairfax has many more resources than I am used to. . . . But some of the same issues exist. It is a premier system, and my job is to keep it a premier system."
Already, the Maryland educator's attitude seems a departure from his predecessor's, those who met with him said. While well regarded and successful, Daniel A. Domenech, who retired in March to work for a New York textbook publisher, had thorny relations with some politicians, who described him as combative and aggressive.
"When the search firm asked us what we wanted, I said less ego and more respect," Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) said as she left an afternoon discussion with Dale and other elected officials. "I think that's what we've got here: less ego, more respect."
It quickly became clear that Dale, who oversees a district of 40,000 in fast-growing Frederick County, is no Domenech, a New York transplant who was frequently in the spotlight.
Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said she wonders if Dale is in over his head. In a meeting with a dozen employee groups, she said Dale failed to provide a broad vision for the system or give specific answers when he was asked to name the most critical issues facing Fairfax schools.
"There really was not a response . . . and that's a concern to me," she said. "He would have been well advised to have a whole lot more training behind the scenes before he was let out to the public. . . . I don't know how much research he's done" on Fairfax.
Breaking their silence on Dale, Fairfax officials confirmed yesterday that Dale is their "preferred candidate" to head the 166,000-student system, the Washington area's largest. An afternoon session to introduce Dale to the county Board of Supervisors quickly turned into a news conference as reporters outnumbered elected officials.
A news conference is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. tomorrow, and the school board is expected to confirm his appointment tomorrow night.
A former math teacher, Dale spent eight years in Frederick and most of his career in Washington state. He and his wife, Valerie, have a total of five children from previous marriages, ranging in age from 28 to 15. The couple plans to buy a condominium or townhouse in Fairfax once the appointment becomes official. The youngest child, a son from his wife's first marriage, will continue to live in Frederick County with his father and attend public schools, Dale said.
Repeatedly, Dale fielded questions on how he would handle Fairfax's growing diversity and what he would do to close a minority achievement gap. He said that programs that require students to repeat grades often are not the answer and that additional resources need to be pumped into schools that need them.
"If you're behind, it's because we haven't prepared you," he said. "I stand for all kids doing well and preparing kids for college."
In an interview after his day of meetings, Dale praised Fairfax's Project Excel schools, a program started by Domenech to shrink class size and beef up such programs as all-day kindergartens in low-performing schools.
He said he expects to be out most nights meeting parents and families of the district's students.
"He believes in collaboration," said Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), a former supervisor with a strong interest in education issues. "He probably knows how to do it." Domenech's tenure "had some rough edges," Scott said.
The School Board is still in negotiations with Dale over a salary and benefit package, School Board President Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said.
In Frederick, Dale received $157,000 plus benefits, and Domenech was paid $248,000, making him the highest-paid public employee in Fairfax and among the highest-paid superintendents in the region.
In interviews with the School Board, Smith said Dale showed he could meet one of the top priorities in a successor to Domenech: He would work well with the county Board of Supervisors.
"It was his collaborative manner in working with the Board of Supervisors that we needed," she said. "That's an important thing right now. We were ready for a change."
Yesterday, supervisors said they were impressed that Dale and his school board hold monthly public meetings with county commissioners in Frederick -- and they hope he will work toward a similar close relationship with them.
"You can't come together only when you're solving a crisis," Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill ) said, calling the Fairfax supervisors' infrequent meetings with the School Board a "novelty."
School officials have not disclosed the names of the other finalists or applicants, but they said it was a "long list." It included Virginia Education Secretary Belle S. Wheelan, former president of Northern Virginia Community College and the first black woman to hold both posts. Smith said Whelan did not make the final cut because she lacks experience in a K-12 system.
Dale said he feels confident, but he knows life is about to change in little and big ways: his e-mail, for example. In Frederick, Dale was known for holding informal conversations with parents regularly and answering his own e-mail.
Asked if that would continue in Fairfax, he paused.
"I have to wrestle with that one," he finally said. "There's 1 million people in Fairfax County. . . . I'm not daunted but I am not naive."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company