The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We walked out over Fairfax County’s new superintendent. Here’s why.

MountVernon High School students participate in a student walkout against the potential confirmation of Michelle Reid to be superintendent. Students also walked out after the appointment was announced. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Aaryan Rawal, Saehee Perez, Natasha Sanghvi and Jaya Nachnani are Fairfax County Public Schools students who are organizers with the Pride Liberation Project, a student-led LGBTQIA+ advocacy group.

On Thursday, a divided Fairfax County School Board voted to appoint Michelle Reid as our new superintendent, despite walkouts of more than 200 students and a 500-student signature petition opposing her appointment. Our protests were organized in less than 24 hours, with the board announcing the date of the vote to confirm Reid late on Wednesday.

As the students who organized these demonstrations, we’re disappointed. The superintendent is an immensely influential figure, and school board members noted that this was “the most important decision” the board has undertaken. Thus, it was imperative that our school division conduct rigorous student outreach before selecting our next superintendent.

Unfortunately, the school board and its recruitment firm, GR Recruiting, failed to ensure student voices were heard. In the months-long search process, the bulk of community outreach was confined to a mere 15 days. During this time, attempts to reach out to the students and the broader community were insufficient. Contrary to comments made by board members that there were ample feedback opportunities, GR Recruiting and FCPS offered just three avenues for students to vocalize concerns: a survey, town halls and stakeholder panels. None of these options was readily accessible to students. The vast majority of our peers were not aware of any survey. One town hall was hosted during school hours, effectively preventing students from attending. Moreover, out of the 275 individuals who participated in stakeholder panels, just 11 were students. Though these students are likely immensely qualified, 11 people simply cannot capture the diversity of viewpoints inherent in a 180,000 student body.

Perhaps most egregious, there is no evidence to suggest that the board listened to its limited community outreach. Not only was there outrage from liberal and conservative groups alike over the school board’s pick, but the board has not publicly released any feedback it received from community panels. Those who participated in these panels seemingly had no confidence that their feedback would be considered. Whistleblowers broke confidentiality to reveal their concerns about Reid.

Reid comes from a Washington state district, Northshore, that is vastly different from FCPS. Not only is Northshore just a ninth of the size of FCPS, but it also is a predominantly White district, with a student body that is less than 3 percent Black. Moreover, Northshore has a significantly lower proportion of English language learners compared with FCPS. Less than 10 percent of learners are English language learners in Northshore, compared with more than 20 percent of FCPS students. Reid has not proven adept at leading these specific populations and the general student body to academic success. A pitiful 50.6 percent of students met grade-level math standards, including less than a quarter of Black and Latino students, and only 25 percent of Northshore English language learners met standards.

Worse, Northshore community members report adverse experiences with Reid and her office. A Black queer graduate of the district penned a letter to the FCPS school board alleging that Reid ignored the feedback of student panels. Similarly, Northshore parents reported high rates of seclusion and restraint for neurodivergent students. Student journalists even reported that Reid’s office wouldn’t allow them to speak to any staff member without approval from her office.

Concerned with the outreach process and Reid’s qualifications, we asked for more time to conduct good-faith outreach and deeper investigate into her troubling record. Rather than respond to the voices of hundreds of students, our elected officials rammed through a vote, arguing that confidentiality was key. The names of the candidates had already leaked. What was the point in continuing to embrace an opaque process?

Most striking, school board members failed to articulate an evidence-based message that Reid was the most qualified for the job. One board member said she was excited because Reid built cricket fields at Northshore; another said it was difficult to find a new superintendent. Absent were any data points, results from community panels or specific plans to improve our system.

To Reid’s credit, she met with us and other concerned groups in the aftermath of the vote, promising to host student town halls at multiple schools. Nonetheless, we continue to have significant concerns about her fit for a community that’s struggled to confront racism, close achievement gaps and achieve equity for all. When meeting with us, for example, Reid revealed she wasn’t aware that fifty percent of LGBQ FCPS students are depressed, a statistic imperative for someone of her power to acknowledge to effectively lead our schools.

We are worried. For the success of us and our peers, we sincerely hope Reid proves us wrong.