Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who has weathered a brutal recession and parent frustrations while steering one of the nation’s top-performing suburban school systems for seven years, said Thursday that he will retire when his contract ends in June 2013.
The impending leadership change in the 175,000-student system, the largest in Virginia and the Washington area, comes during a period of widespread transition as new school chiefs have taken command in the District and Montgomery County.
Dale, 62, made his announcement after a tumultuous two years in which he wrestled with tight budgets and frequently came under fire for his handling of such issues as a discipline policy that many parents called overly harsh.
Dissatisfaction among some parents and teachers has made Dale a lightning rod in a high-stakes school board campaign. Half of the 12 incumbents are not seeking reelection this fall.
Dale said he wanted to publicize his decision now so that the community knows his plans before an election that will determine the mission, vision and direction of the school system over the next decade.
In an interview before the announcement at Thursday evening’s board meeting, Dale said he hoped voters would seek answers to key questions that have been subsumed by other issues in the campaign.
“Do you believe all kids can learn? Do you believe we should address the needs of our most needy students equally as well as the needs of our most gifted students so they both can be successful?” Dale said. “That’s a huge philosophical question for which there is no transparency right now among all candidates.”
Under Dale, Fairfax has kept a national reputation for high achievement among large school systems. Since his arrival in 2004, the dropout rate has shrunk, state math and reading test scores have risen, and achievement gaps have narrowed. Black and Latino students still lag behind their white and Asian counterparts, but they are catching up.
But in the past three years, those successes were overshadowed by a series of painful budget cuts.
The number of students has grown about 7 percent since 2008. The system’s $2.2 billion budget stagnated over that same period.
To serve more students at the same level of funding, the school system froze teacher salaries for two years. Class sizes swelled, summer school was slashed and student athletes were required to pay new fees.
Those changes, coupled with debate over the school system’s rigorous grading policy and the closure of Clifton Elementary School, helped stoke parent and teacher anger toward Dale, his staff and the school board.
“Dr. Dale and his current administration seem so anxious to maintain our reputation that they’re never willing to look for the problems,” said activist Maria Allen. “Too many of our kids fall through the cracks.”
Many candidates in the board election have positioned themselves as reformers who would challenge the superintendent’s decisions, greet his ideas with skepticism and force his administration to operate with more transparency.
“Everyone understands that the public is wanting to see greater oversight of the superintendent,” said Megan McLaughlin, a candidate for the board’s Braddock seat. She chairs the Fairfax Education Coalition, a group of parent and teacher organizations that has been critical of Dale.
Dale, a native of Seattle who began his career in the early 1970s as a high school math teacher, served eight years as superintendent of Maryland’s Frederick County schools before he was tapped to lead the Fairfax system.
He is now one of Fairfax’s highest-paid public officials, earning more than the leaders of school systems in the District and in Montgomery, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties. In addition to his base annual salary of $302,998, he receives more than $65,000 a year in deferred compensation.
Dale and his supporters point to rising student achievement amid changing demographics as evidence of effective leadership. The county is a magnet for immigrants from around the world. And the proportion of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches rose from 19 percent in 2005-06 to 25 percent in the last school year.
“Increasing diversity, increasing poverty and rising standards have been a challenge for us, and we’ve met them,” said the board’s chairwoman, Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), who is running for reelection. “That is an amazing accomplishment for a school district.”
During flush times early in his tenure, Dale introduced a number of initiatives designed to help struggling students.
He implemented a plan for short, frequent tests meant to identify students’ weaknesses in reading and math. Describing education as a “team sport,” he set aside time for teacher collaboration and hired coaches to help teachers devise lesson plans.
Under Dale, Fairfax also expanded foreign-language programs and extended full-day kindergarten to all elementary schools. Teachers were given extended-year contracts so they could be paid for summer planning and professional development.
Board member Kathy Smith (Sully), who is also running for reelection, attributed Dale’s success in part to his relatively long tenure. In large cities, many superintendents leave after less than than four years. Long hours and difficult politics contribute to quick turnover. School leadership in Fairfax and Montgomery, the D.C. region’s marquee suburban systems, has been more stable. But with the June retirement of Montgomery’s longtime leader, Jerry D. Weast, both are in flux.
Both systems have been cautious in recent years about embracing reforms advocated by the Obama administration, such as approving charter schools and pegging teacher pay to student test scores. And both are grappling with whether new leaders will emphasize continuity or change in coming years.
Dale said that over the next year and a half he aims to launch plans for “the next wave in education” — customizable learning plans that take advantage of technology to allow students to move through curriculum at their own pace.
After retiring, Dale said, he plans to spend more time with his family. “I’ll still be dabbling in education,” he said, “but it will be a much scaled-back version.”