Meet the Candidate: Hunter Mill School Board’s Mark Wilkinson

Mark WilkinsonOak Hill consultant Mark Wilkinson is one of two candidates running for the Fairfax County Public Schools Hunter Mill school board seat. Reston Now is running Q-and-As with both candidates. Incumbent Pat Hynes’ responses were published earlier this week.

The two candidates will participate in a forum in Reston on Oct. 24. The election is Nov. 3.

Reston Now: Why do you want to serve on the school board?

MW: First and foremost, I’m a dad of a recent graduate of FCPS, and concerned, as all of us are, that our Fairfax County school system risks losing its status as a world-class system. And in my over 20 years residing in Fairfax County, I’ve seen some very disturbing trends in large class sizes, mismanagement of the FCPS budget, and a “we know best” attitude from the School Board.

My desire to serve on the FCPS School Board stems from my desire to give something back to the Fairfax County community, put our children first, and use my 35 years budget experience to turn around the FCPS budget. I want to re-establish the community’s trust in the School Board as advocates for our children.

RN: What makes you uniquely qualified to serve the school board?

MW: I’m not a politician, yet it doesn’t take a politician to see that this school board needs financial expertise and strong leadership to fix its $75-100M budget deficit. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is the 10th largest school system in the United States, and it requires strong leadership and people who know how to manage government programs, and who understand policy, budgets, strategy, and contracts. These are the key activities of a school board member.

I have 35 years as a public servant doing just that – managing budgets five times the size of FCPS’s budget, establishing policy, setting strategic direction that crossed multiple federal agencies. I will demand accountability and transparency, and ask the hard questions that are necessary to ensure that FCPS does not lose its status as a world-class school system.

RN: What are the three biggest concerns you have about FCPS?

MW: My plan is simple — reduce class size, fix the budget, increase teacher compensation, and close the achievement gap — which will improve the lives of ALL FCPS children. And as an independent and non-partisan advocate for our children, teachers, and the taxpayers of Fairfax County, I will do what is right for all children of Fairfax County — to improve their education, their quality of life, their future.

We need to improve student/teacher ratios because part of being responsive to the needs of children is a lower student-to-teacher ratio in overcrowded classrooms. The more interaction a teacher has with each student, the better the student will comprehend and retain what is taught. Unfortunately, over 50 percent of our Hunter Mill District elementary schools have had the largest class sizes in the county for the past several years.

The current FCPS School Board’s failure, to date, to remedy our children’s class size disparity — despite an overwhelming need to do so — is an issue I intend to address. Many current school board members distort the facts by talking about decreasing the classes across the entire FCPS when only 20 percent of the schools need reduction. Hunter Mill schools happen to be in that situation.

Additionally, I would work with the Office of Program Evaluation to address inefficiencies in programs — especially programs designed to help our neediest kids in closing the achievement gap. Why is it that the achievement gap is continuing to widen, and yet we continue to pour millions of dollars above and beyond the federal and state requirements into programs designed to help our neediest students? We need a fresh look at why they are not working.

It is time to do an analysis beyond just survey monkeys to figure out how we can help our neediest children. Where is the funding going? Why is it not working? A teacher who recently quit from a Title 1 school said that he “gives up.” He said he just could not connect and have educational success with his students. Someone needs to figure out why, and it should not be solely hoist upon our overstrained teachers. The funding for “motivation coaches” and “inclusion specialists” is not getting the job done.

A second area of concern is the lack of transparency and visibility with respect to the Fairfax County School budget. The budget is $2.8B annually and represents 53 percent of county tax revenues. Fairfax residents need to know that their tax dollars are being used effectively.

And lest we forget, our FCPS School Board has discretion over all the money in the budget allotted to them by the Board of Supervisors. If they have that discretion, they also have the responsibility that comes with it to oversee and decide where to spend that money effectively, efficiently and within budget. Yet that has not happened, and despite being granted over 99 percent of their requested funds, our FCPS school board has not lived within its means, and is facing a $75-$100M budget deficit in FY17.

Last, but not least, we need not forget that parents are the primary educators of their children. I would like to see a stronger partnership between parents and the School Board. Parents’ input should be a key component of School Board decisions.

RN:  The school system is facing a record budget gap. What are your ideas for closing the gap? Can it be done?

MW: It most certainly can, and must be done, for the sake of our children. Presently, the FCPS proposed budget is being closed on the backs of children and teachers instead of identifying inefficiencies within programs. I propose that before we look at cuts to programs, we need to examine expenditures and their effectiveness. Yet instead of asking parents what to save, this board is asking us what to cut – year after year.

We need strong leadership and budget experience that will save the most important programs — those that have direct impact in the classroom.

We need a scalpel, not an ax in identifying inefficiencies within programs. Proposing to ax programs such as music, art and after-school sports only result in painful reductions in overall services provided to our school children.

I can bring fresh ideas to eliminate redundant, inefficient, and/or ineffective programs currently in the system. A line item review, zero based budgeting, and tasking an independent auditor general to conduct performance-based audits will drive more dollars back to the teachers and into the classroom.

My opponent has openly said she does not think it is her responsibility to get into the budget details. This indicates a lack of budget concern and rubber stamp approval. Even more so, this lack of concern has led to nearly 1000 trailers being used as classrooms and annual budget threats of deleting sports, arts, and music.

With this failure of leadership, it is exceptionally difficult to evaluate any program’s success. My opponent has also side-stepped and relinquished any leadership in examining ways to leverage services already provided by Fairfax County itself — such as combining the county administration cost for payroll, HR and benefits with the school system — these can provide opportunities to reduce or eliminate expensive redundancies.

Finally, I believe we need stronger business partnerships — partnering with the wider community and business leaders to address aging buildings and their maintenance, food services, custodial services, and others will have a potential for better value from competition and lower rates.

RN: FCPS received attention earlier this year for voting to offer protection for students facing bias for gender identity. How would you have voted on that issue? What is your interpretation of this and have you spoken with any parents about what this means going forward.

MW: Along with all responsible parents, I oppose bullying and emotional abuse of any student for any reason.  Schools have a responsibility to prevent such abuse, regardless of the reason.

Kids bully kids for countless reasons, none of them good, none of them justifiable. To single out one category (transgender) is to diminish the others. Aren’t all forms of bullying and emotional abuse equally reprehensible?

The school board’s decision to add transgender students and teachers to its nondiscrimination policy elevates transgenderism to a category protected from discrimination and bullying. Why is transgenderism uniquely deserving of discrimination when other forms of bullying are equally harmful? Why not protect all students?

The school board has given no thought to how to implement such a policy for bathrooms, physical education, and other areas.

Before implementing its policy, did the school board ask for parents’ views on the presence of a biological male in an adjoining bathroom stall on an elementary school girl?

Do parents have a voice in determining whether biological females will be permitted to use the same bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other facilities as their sons?

I am categorically against causing needless emotional distress to any student including those identified as transgendered. But what about the emotional distress experienced by children when a member of the opposite sex enters a space — reserved for private functions — traditionally used by members of their own biological gender?

RN: Large class size, overcrowded schools and a growing school population overall continue to be problems. What is the solution?

MW: If you take the number of students and divide the number of FCPS stated teachers in the classroom, the average class size should be around 13 students to one teacher. Yet over 40 percent of the Fairfax schools have close to 30 students per class — Hunter Mill being the largest part of this — while other classes have less than 20. My opponent has stated that adequate education is fine for the Hunter Mill district. As a Dad, I find this offensive.

I would modify class size policies so that they are fair, equitable, and optimized for ALL students and teachers. If we reduce redundancy and inefficiencies in the school system, we can lower the class sizes and ensure there are adequate resources for classes below 20 students. Focusing on this will increase the attention and guidance that students receive from their teachers and will constitute a significant improvement to the educational experience.

RN:  Parents with students in various arts, music and sports programs are very concerned about the effects of budget cuts. What would you say to reassure them? If it comes down to the school board making cuts, are there any programs you think should be higher priority to save?

MW: As I’ve said above, we need a scalpel, not an ax in identifying inefficiencies within programs, rather than proposing to axe programs like arts, music and sports. Such approaches only result in painful reductions in overall services provided to our school children.

I would also take a hard look at administrative expenditures, which account for a large percentage of our FCPS budget. For example, I would like to know the improved benefit for the 2014 staff trip to Disney and Napa Valley, CA against obtaining the same benefit locally.

We need more accountability for our spending. An online checkbook can assist the taxpayers in learning where the money is going. Also, line item review, zero-based budgeting, and tasking the auditor general to conduct performance-based audits will shift more tax dollars to teachers and the classroom.

RN: Fairfax teachers’ salaries continue to lag behind neighboring districts. What can be done about this and how can you convince teachers to stay at FCPS?

MW: I believe that we first must prioritize the need to offer competitive compensation for our teachers, who currently have starting salaries that are anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 below those in neighboring counties. I will fight to deliver competitive compensation for our teachers without bankrupting taxpayers.

The success of our public school system starts with our great teachers. Talented teachers help motivate all children to their very best. Yet we also have a responsibility to give our teachers the resources they need to effectively teach, and those include smaller class sizes, instructional aides, resource teachers, effective teaching tools and programs.

If elected, I will work tirelessly to find other ways we can increase teacher compensation so  that FCPS will be able to retain the top-notch teachers for which it has been known.

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