On Jack D. Dale's first day as superintendent of Fairfax County schools, a School Board member stopped by his still-unpacked office.
"It's 10:20 a.m.," said Tess Wilson (Braddock). "Have you solved anything yet?"
The room, filled with school officials Dale had been meeting, erupted in laughter.
Though Wilson was joking, Dale started July 1 as the school system seeks answers to seemingly eternal issues, from the admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to bridging the minority achievement gap. He also must spend the summer getting acquainted with the stakeholders in the Washington area's largest school system, from PTA presidents and principals to business leaders and the Board of Supervisors.
In his previous job, Dale served as superintendent of the Frederick County school system, just over the Potomac River and about an hour's drive from Fairfax but one-quarter its size and not nearly as diverse.
As he sat in his office a week ago, Dale, 55, said he feels up to the challenge. By 10 a.m. -- already on his second cup of coffee -- he had just finished meeting with his assistant, Mary Ann Knox, and chief academic officer, Brad Draeger, who had been serving as interim superintendent, to go over short-term projects and his calendar for the next few weeks.
Dale's four-year contract, which will pay him $237,000 a year, officially began July 1, but Dale said as soon as the School Board announced his appointment in May, he started getting to know the county, its schools and its players. Before the School Board voted on his contract, Dale was introduced to the community in a day of meetings. Recently, he spent a day with the School Board on its retreat and another day with principals at a similar getaway.
"Today's my first day, but not really because I've already met with a lot of people," Dale said last week. "Out here, I don't feel as out in the cold since I'm in the region."
He said he has received advice from predecessors Jack Burkholder, Robert "Bud" Spillane and Daniel A. Domenech. Domenech retired in March to work for a textbook publisher in New York.
"All three of them have said, 'You will love Fairfax,' " Dale said.
Dale was working in Frederick until the end, attending his last School Board meeting there on June 30. His wife, Valerie, threw a surprise farewell party for him the night before and further surprised Dale with a visit from his parents, who live in Seattle.
For now, Dale will be commuting to his office in the Burkholder Center in Fairfax from just a few miles away in an apartment he and his wife rented for six months near the county Government Center. After their lease is up, they plan to buy a condominium or townhouse.
Among Dale's first tasks, he said, is to finish reading a panel's report on admissions at Thomas Jefferson. The panel recommended relying less heavily on an admissions test and considering other factors. The School Board is scheduled to vote on a new admissions plan in September after hearing a series of discussions and forums on the issue this summer.