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Fairfax chooses new superintendent as NAACP, parents, students protest pick

Mount Vernon High School students walk out of class to protest the selection of Michelle Reid as Fairfax County Public Schools' next superintendent. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Fairfax County Public Schools has named its next superintendent — but the pick, Michelle Reid, is opposed by the county NAACP chapter, a Black educators’ group, several parent groups and hundreds of students, dozens of whom left class Thursday morning to protest Reid and how she was selected.

The Fairfax school board voted 9 to 3 to confirm Reid as the successor to Superintendent Scott Brabrand at a tense, at-times emotional meeting Thursday night. Reid, a former principal who earned a master’s degree and an educational leadership doctorate from the University of Washington, will leave her job as superintendent of the Northshore School District in Washington state, a role she has held since 2016. She was named the 2021 national superintendent of the year by the School Superintendents Association.

“Dr. Michelle Reid has all of the characteristics that will make her an excellent superintendent for FCPS,” board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer said at the meeting. “She blew us away with her keen analytic skill, her desire to be a little more curious with everything she does and her ability to let her intelligence shine.”

The vote came after a turbulent final two weeks of the superintendent search, which saw students, parents, the NAACP and the Fairfax Alliance of Black Schools Educators all raise complaints that Reid is insufficiently experienced to lead the Fairfax system, which enrolls 180,000, because the Northshore district is much less diverse and smaller, with about 22,000 students.

The Fairfax NAACP and the Alliance of Black School Educators — as well as the students — also raised concerns that Reid did not do enough to improve racial disparities in academic outcomes while she helmed the Northshore system. Parent groups, meanwhile — some of which formed during the pandemic to push for reopening — blasted Reid’s record on school closures, noting that the Northshore district was one of the first in the nation to close but among the last to reopen. The Fairfax GOP joined the criticism Friday, releasing a statement opposing Reid’s selection and calling the board’s vote “rushed.”

And everybody said they felt left out of the months-long superintendent search and asked for more chances to give input.

“We feel it’s key that students should have a say,” said Jaya Nachnani, an 18-year-old senior at Mount Vernon High School. “We want to know if she’d be prepared for such a diverse and big county, because you know it’s a totally different ballgame.”

Reid said relatively little in response to critics during the meeting Thursday. But in an interview Friday, she said that she welcomes the opportunity to sit down with anyone displeased with her selection — and that she had a meeting planned with the NAACP Friday afternoon.

She also defended her skills and record. “I have no concerns about my ability to lead Fairfax County Public Schools,” she said, “or I would not have applied.”

Board member Karen Keys-Gamarra had sought unsuccessfully to delay the vote Thursday, citing community concerns with the search process.

But other board members defended the search process.

Fairfax’s superintendent search began last summer after Brabrand announced he planned to leave the job when his contract expires June 30. It proceeded for months — and involved surveying parents, students and staff as well as holding at least three “community stakeholder meetings” and six virtual town halls.

“This board was very, very transparent in publishing what our calendar would be, what our process would be, that it would be a confidential search as we’ve done in recent memory,” board member Megan McLaughlin said. “I don’t feel that we have rushed this process or had a lack of transparency.”

Reid was one of two finalists for Fairfax’s top job; the other, Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan, withdrew from consideration Saturday. Her withdrawal came soon after the Fairfax County NAACP released a statement naming both women as finalists, criticizing Reid and supporting Logan, who is Black, for the role.

“Our School Board has the historic opportunity to choose the first Black superintendent and the second woman superintendent in Fairfax County Public School’s 150-year history,” read the NAACP’s five-page statement.

At the board meeting Thursday, Keys-Gamarra indicated she would have preferred Logan.

“Despite the qualifications of Dr. Reid, I have to tell you that the other candidate was more qualified,” she said.

The NAACP said in its statement that “whistleblowers” had leaked the names of the finalists to the organization. Neither Reid nor Logan had been publicly named by the school system by that point.

Much of the NAACP statement focused on the fact that Fairfax is significantly larger and more diverse than Northshore. Fairfax’s student body is about 37 percent White, 27 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian and 10 percent Black; Northshore is 60 percent White, 17 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic and less than 2 percent Black.

The letter also cited Washington state data on student performance in the Northshore district, noting racial disparities — including the fact that 25 percent of Black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students in Northshore passed state math assessments in fall 2021, compared with 74 percent of Asian students and nearly 50 percent of White students.

“Similarly disturbing is the data showing that despite only 34 Black students in the 2021 Senior class for the whole district, only 88% graduated on time,” the letter stated. “We are very concerned about the likelihood of success for a new superintendent who has no professional experience in any capacity with a school district of the size and diversity of FCPS.”

The NAACP statement also said the group asked to be included in a panel that interviewed the finalists but was denied permission. Responding to the NAACP’s concerns, the Fairfax Alliance of Black School Educators on Tuesday published an open letter critiquing the superintendent search process, as well as Reid.

The alliance’s president, Anthony Harris, said in an interview before Thursday’s vote that he found it “problematic” that his group was not asked to participate in the interviews of finalists. He noted alliance representatives were asked to help interview candidates for Fairfax’s chief equity officer and chief academic officer positions.

“We’re not sure why we were left off this process,” he said. “I think it’s more the process that I have an issue with than the person.”

Meanwhile, Fairfax parents and parent groups who have been sharply critical of school closures took Reid to task on social media for Northshore’s relatively slow reopening process.

Northshore was reportedly the first district in the country to close when the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. It began returning some students to a hybrid form of in-person learning in March 2021 and reopened for full-time in-person learning in September 2021.

The Fairfax County Parents Association tweeted Sunday that Reid “was one of the worst in the country at reopening,” linking to a local news story, published February 2021, that quoted Northshore parents frustrated with the pace of the return to face-to-face instruction.

The group has also tweeted that Fairfax conducted its search without “any real input” from the community.

The association wrote in a statement Thursday that the survey sent out by Fairfax officials during the search process was “fairly weak” and “there was zero interactive discussion” at the district’s town halls.

“[We] asked repeatedly to have a seat at the table or to be able to give feedback,” the association wrote. “We were denied.”

And on Thursday, students at six high schools walked out of class to demonstrate against Reid’s selection and to ask for more inclusion in the superintendent search process. More than 350 students signed a petition urging the school system to “bolster student outreach” in the final stages of the superintendent search by holding student town halls during high school free periods.

In the petition, students wrote that Fairfax’s convening of an 11-member student “stakeholder group” to seek their input on the superintendent search was insufficient and did not adequately represent the entire student body.

“We ask that FCPS conduct a public audit of the Superintendent search process,” the students wrote in the petition, “and publicly release clear indications that the Superintendent was chosen for demonstrating success in key areas, including community outreach, closing achievement and opportunity gaps, mental health access for all students, and equitable school experiences.”

In an interview, Mount Vernon student Nachnani said more than 100 students demonstrated against Reid by leaving class Thursday morning. McLean High School junior Saehee Perez said about 50 students on that campus held a similar protest Thursday afternoon, just after classes ended.

Before the school board vote Thursday night, its vice chair, Sizemore Heizer, asked Fairfax parents, students and staff members to give Reid a chance.

“I have the utmost confidence that once this community knows Dr. Reid … they will also love her,” Heizer said.

But Keys-Gamarra used her last speech before the vote to directly address Reid, who was sitting in the audience for most of the meeting.

She told Reid that she finds it troubling that Reid is coming from a smaller and less diverse district; that Reid closed schools “for a significant amount of time; and that so many Fairfax residents are upset about her appointment.

“This is not a question of whether I think you are good. It’s a question of whether I thought you were the best” in the search process, Keys-Gamarra said. “I am worried about the learning curve. It’s a big jump from 22,000 to 180,000.”

Reid said in the interview Friday that she thinks Northshore and Fairfax are more similar than most people realize. She said both districts have “extraordinarily high expectations for students, staff and families.”

Reid said she plans to spend her first days on the job going out to meet as many students, staff and community members as she can. She spent Friday morning visiting elementary schools.

She said several times that her mantra going forward will be to remain “student-centered and student-focused.” Reid said she knows she is assuming Fairfax’s top job at a challenging moment for public education in America, when educational issues are at the forefront of the nation’s culture and political wars.

But she said she prefers to view education as an opportunity, not a challenge: “Fairfax County Public Schools has long been a lighthouse district for our country and I want us to continue pushing the envelope.”

Michelle Reid

Reid was named this week as the next superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. She will succeed Scott Brabrand whose contract ends June 30.

  • Background: Born in Germany and grew up in a military family, living in places including the D.C. area, Boston, San Francisco and the Seattle area
  • Experience: Current superintendent of Northshore School District in Washington State; formerly worked as an athletic director and a high school principal
  • Education: B.A., natural science and chemistry, University of Puget Sound; MA, educational administration; doctorate, educational leadership, University of Washington
  • Recognition: Named 2021 national superintendent of the year by the School Superintendents Association