Fairfax County Schools
With Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech
Thursday, March 21, 2002
Daniel A. Domenech is the superintendent of Fairfax County schools, one of the area's largest school districts. It also includes one of the most diverse high schools in the country, J.E.B. Stuart High School, where students speak 33 languages. (Enter Flash gallery.)
Domenech is expected to unveil a proposal today to offer job incentives and low-budget perks for teachers next year, when budgetary pressures will limit salary raises. (Read the story.)
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Superintendent Domenech. Today's Post article details your proposal to offer non-salary perks to employees. Can you elaborate on the plan, and what led to its introduction?
Daniel A. Domenech: We are very concerned that we need to remain competitive with our neighboring school systems. The Post also reported this morning that the Prince William school system will be offering their teachers a 7.2% increase. Our staff is scheduled to receive 4.6%, assuming that proposal is not affected by the budget cuts we'll have to impose as a result of a $71 million budget deficit.
Anything that we can do for our staff that will not directly impact next year's budget, we should do. The snow days and July 5 holidays are small perks that should improve morale. The long-term commitment to begin picking up the 5% employee contribution to the Virginia Retirement System will eventually increase take home pay.
Alexandria, VA: I am interested in getting into the profession of Library Media Specialist. I am preparing to start coursework to get my teaching credential, which is a requirement before you can pursue the library media certification. The problem I am having is finding how to get the library coursework. From what I have learned, local school districts, included Fairfax County, contract the classes for their employees. Who can I call in your organization to find out just how I can gain entry into this field? Anyone who does outreach for people who want to work in your school district? All the local universities have been able to tell me is that they don't offer the course work or it is something offered under contract to organizations. Given that Elementary Library Media specialist is a field listed on your Web site as being in demand, information would be a little easier to come by.
Daniel A. Domenech: Let me direct you to Kevin North who heads up our Employment Services section at 703-914-8100. He should be able to help you.
Alexandria, VA: In addition to the perks mentioned, what about other perks, such as free membership to the county's rec. centers. I use the Fairfax rec. centers and think that it would be a nice perk for the teachers as well.
Daniel A. Domenech: Unfortunately, the county's recreation centers are not part of our school system. Sorry.
Springfield, VA: Mr. Domenech,
As a lifelong County resident and a product of the County school system, I am a huge supporter of our public schools. With two children currently enrolled, and a third to follow in a few years, I am all in favor of raises for the teachers. I am also a County Government employee.
Why is it that the schools can't submit a legitimate budget? I keep seeing in print your contention that FCPS have cut $70 million out of the budget over the past two years. Not true....that is $70 million from your wish list.
My question is, what year was the last time FCPS received a budget smaller than the previous year? Implying that you have cut $70 million from your budget is a slap in the face to County Government agencies which do actually cut their budgets...by 5% this year, and more likely to come while the schools will see a huge increase in their budget over last year.
Fairfax County now spends $9,641 per year per child! Maybe that was a bargain in New York, but here in Virginia that seems outrageous.
Daniel A. Domenech: Is increasing class size, which cuts $7 million from the budget, a wish list? Is cutting repair and maintenance of our facilities frivolous? Is deferring the purchase of textbooks, computers and supplies for the classrooms not a budget cut? Is having to pay $28 million more to educate the additional 3000 students we're getting next year a fantasy? Is paying our employees just 4.6% more when other school systems are raising salaries and benefits by 7% and higher, including the county, inappropriate?
Start reducing our school population by 5000 students a year, instead of increasing it by that amount, and we'll talk about budget cuts that won't hurt our children.
Burke, VA: I was surprised to learn that some kindergarten teachers in Fairfax still support "invented spelling" by kids. What additional, non-salary supports might you provide to teachers in the way of ongoing professional development to counter the use of such educational fads?
Daniel A. Domenech: We have spent a considerable sum of money in training our staff in the use of techniques that teach phonemic awareness and phonics. We have also introduced such software programs as Waterford, which reinforce phonics skills. The results have been very positive. Last school year, 92% of our second graders were reading on grade level or above, a truly outstanding accomplishment.
Virginia: I am concerned about the move toward year-round schools, especially at the high school level. How are kids going to be able to have summer jobs, and earn money for college, if they must attend school in the summer?
Daniel A. Domenech: Falls Church and Stuart High Schools are currently on the modified calendar. We have not heard of any concerns from their students regarding summer jobs. On the contrary, because they will be finished with the school year by the end of May, those students will have a head start on the job market. Unless they attend summer school, they will be off all of June, July, and half of August.
Manassas: In view of the budget shortfalls and the doubtful raises for staff, would you be willing to give support employees paid time off during the week of Christmas?
Daniel A. Domenech: We gave our support employees a day off during the Christmas week and I am proposing that we give them July 5 as a holiday.
Clifton, VA: I would like to see a top to bottom audit of the Fairfax County School System. There has to be some programs and items that can be cut without effecting the education of the counties children. I would be willing to pay more in taxes to fund schools only after an audit. My feelings now are cut your budget by 10-20% until you can justify your requests for additional funding.
A victim of the FCPS
Daniel A. Domenech: Our award winning Finance Department put together a program budget that does allow you to examine every one of our programs. Go through it, put together a list, and see what you come up with. By the way, it's on our web site www.fcps.edu. You can also participate in our April 3 town meeting at Lanier Middle School at 7:30 pm. The participants will in essence go through the exercise you have described and come up with a potential cut list.
Centreville: At this point, do you anticipate a teacher shortage for next year?
Daniel A. Domenech: No. We have been fortunate in still receiving as many as ten applications for every vacancy we have. Our concern is in being able to attract the best and the brightest, particularly in critical fields like special education, math, and the sciences.
Falls Church: I received a school census form in the mail recently and I don't have any kids in school. Why do I need to fill this out?
Daniel A. Domenech: It helps us in establishing trends for our school system, such as the percentage of households that no longer send children to our schools. We have made it easier for you to respond to the census this year if you do not have children. You can go on the web, reply by fax, or call the number provided on the census and just say, no.
Prescott, AZ: I plan to move to the DC area this summer with my three boys. Two are in second grade; one is in eighth grade. All have language, reading and writing abilities that currently are below grade level. The oldest one is especially frustrated and talks often of dropping out.
The most important element in choosing where we live is the school system.
Is there one particular school in your district that would work best with the oldest child? Is there also one elementary school that would especially help children who are below grade level in reading and writing?
Daniel A. Domenech: Let me be the first to welcome you to our area. Fairfax is a large school system with 204 schools. We are very proud of all of our schools and feel that any of them can provide the services your children will require. I would suggest that as you begin to look at potential neighborhoods, that you visit the schools in that area and talk to the principal about the services your children will need. They will be happy to show you the school and the services they have in place. In the meantime, you can also visit all of our schools on line at www.fcps.edu
Falls Church, VA: Do you consider it an issue that so many parents in Fairfax County opt to send their children to private school, or do you see this as an advantage to the current resource limitations?
Daniel A. Domenech: "So many parents" do not opt to send their children to private school. Less than 12% of Fairfax County's student population attend private schools. We do, however, maintain excellent working relationships with the schools in the area.
Centreville, VA: I am having difficulty understanding why our home state of Virginia will not provide us even the opportunity to make our own local taxing decisions to help address our overcrowded schools. What are they afraid of? If we in Fairfax decided we needed to raise more sales or income tax revenues to improve our transportation and schools, that wouldn't reduce the total amount of money we send off to the state anyway, would it?
You're an educator. Help me!
Confused in Centreville
Daniel A. Domenech: I am as frustrated as you are. There is no question that Northern Virginia is the economic engine that supports the rest of the state. The quality of our roads and schools are essential to retaining and attracting businesses to our area. It is an investment that the state is apparently not willing to make. We can only hope that our system is not severely affected before the state decides to come to our rescue.
Fairfax Virginia: How will the additional planning time be provided to teachers without any additional costs (please be specific).
Daniel A. Domenech: The schools have been provided with sufficient art teachers to accommodate the additional planning time. It can be done at no additional cost. The issue has been that in some cases the principals require the classroom teacher to stay in the class when the group is receiving art instruction. That will no longer be possible.
Herndon: I know that those of you in the schools can cut a lot out of your budget and still get the job done. Every year we hear the same story -- that if the taxpayers don't come up with more money, the students will suffer. Yet every year you make do with less than you ask for and the kids do fine. You have done it before. Why can't you get by on less this year?
Daniel A. Domenech: This year we again expect 3000 more students, yet, the state has cut our aid by $46 million. In previous years we could count on being ahead at this point in the budget cycle, not $46 million behind. Consequently, for the first time ever, we are confronted with a $71 million deficit on March 21. The Supervisors have said that they will help, but not to the tune of $71 million. Therefore, we have no choice but to anticipate substantial cuts that will undoubtedly affect class size and the elimination of many programs.
Fairfax, Virginia: I am the parent of two elementary school children with no learning difficulties. The school course work is not structured for the basic skills but for the grading of teachers by the SOL tests from Richmond. My children struggle with the basic skills of reading, and math. They have fallen below grade level and do not qualify for extra help. Please advise.
Daniel A. Domenech: This year we designed a student accountability plan that would identify students that are struggling to be on grade level. Those students would be eligible to receive additional assistance. This program, however, will cost an additional $2 million that is currently in our budget. Unfortunately, we are faced with a $71 million deficit that may well result in the elimination of this program from the budget. This is an example of the frustration that our school system faces as a result of the lack of adequate support from our state.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us, Superintendent Domenech. We'll see you again in May.
Daniel A. Domenech: Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to join you on line and thanks to the many folks that took the time to ask questions. See you in May!
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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