With the incumbent stepping down, two candidates are running for the Hunter Mill District seat on the Fairfax County School Board.
Earlier in January, Hunter Mill District Representative Pat Hynes said that she won’t seek re-election. Her term expires at the end of 2019.
Laura Ramirez Drain’s campaign is focused on the Family Life Education curriculum, school boundaries and the FCPS budget. Melanie Meren, a self-described “Fairfax County parent leader,” wants to promote “strong education.”
Both Meren and Drain point to their experiences as parents of children who are either currently attending or went to Fairfax County public schools as one of the reasons why they are running for the seat.
Drain said on her website that “running for school board means for her protecting the children and the community while also guiding them to stand up and speak out for what they believe in.”
Meren’s website says that “after years of advocating as a parent and professional in education policy and communications, she believes she can accomplish more as an elected leader. She wants to advance solutions that evolve our system to meet the needs of our students and communities now — and plan for future expected needs.”
Meren’s career has focused on education public policy and programming. She worked at the U.S. Department of Education and as an independent communications consultant at MKM Strategies.
Meren has also been involved with advocacy and community organizations.
She began co-leading the #IamFCPS grassroots campaign after a $75 million budget cut hit FCPS in 2015. The campaign secured $60 million of the proposed cuts, resulting in educator pay increases and measures to help address growing class sizes, according to her website. She is also currently a member of the Fairfax County School Board’s Human Resources Advisory Committee.
Drain has more than 20 years of sales experience with information technology products and solution-based services, including with Verizon and AT&T. She is also the chief executive officer and founder of Random Words Marketing Group. She relocated from Mexico to the U.S. in 1999 with the Hewlett-Packard Corp. and became a U.S. citizen in 2008, according to her website.
Since 2011, she has produced and hosted “Cafe Latino Radio,” a bilingual talk radio show, and in 2015, she launched Cafe Latino TV — both shows focused on sharing success stories from small business owners and people from local nonprofits over a cup of coffee.
This Saturday (Jan. 26) she plans to host a “meet and greet” from 3-5 p.m. at Glory Days Grill (1400 North Point Village Center).
Reston Now sent questionnaires to Hynes and her opponent, Mark Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s has not yet been returned. The two candidates will participate in a forum in Reston on Oct. 24. The election is Nov. 3.
RN: Why do you want to serve on the school board?
PH: I am very grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to represent the Hunter Mill District on the school board for the past four years. My experience as the mother of two FCPS graduates, an FCPS teacher, a lawyer, and a community leader have served me well on the board and, I hope, have served the community well.
The current board has accomplished a good deal, including: later high school start times; full-day elementary Mondays; elementary class size caps; student-centered discipline reform; improvements in literacy and special education instruction; a comprehensive independent efficiency audit; and the hiring of the first-ever auditor general who reports directly to the school board.
Under this board’s direction, FCPS has taken a leadership role in the state and national conversation about better assessments, moving away from the high-stakes test score chase that has for too long dominated classroom instruction.
We have continuing challenges, however, including persistent achievement gaps, class sizes that are still too high in some schools, growing needs for space, and teacher pay that is not keeping pace in the region. Thanks to the efforts of the current board and Superintendent Karen Garza, I see progress on those and other challenges, and I hope the people of Hunter Mill will give me the opportunity to continue this important work.
RN: What makes you uniquely qualified to serve the school board?
PH: As the only member of the current 12-member school board who has worked as a teacher in FCPS, I am uniquely suited to understand the interests of our employees. My colleagues on the board are very supportive of teachers, which I appreciate, but my time in the classroom gives me the experience to anticipate concerns and ask relevant questions. Having taught in both Vienna and Reston, I also have a network of local teachers and school-based administrators who know that I value their opinions and understand their needs.
I have been a PTA and civic leader in the Hunter Mill District for most of my 25 years in the community. I have had many leadership roles, including president of the Meekins Cooperative Preschool in Vienna, president of my children’s elementary school PTA and president of my neighborhood civic association. I was a co-founder of the Vienna Teen Center Foundation, which raised funds and developed programs for the teen center. For many years, I have been embedded in local public service, which has given me a strong local network and a broad understanding of this community’s goals and values.
My legal training is also an important asset in my work on the school board. The board has the benefit of experienced legal counsel, of course, but it is helpful to have board members with a basic grounding in the law. School boards work within legal constraints in almost everything we do, including student discipline, human resources, land use, government transparency, and many other layers of local, state and federal regulation. In addition, a working understanding of government institutions is very helpful in the advocacy work that board members are always doing on behalf of FCPS.
RN:. What are the three biggest concerns you have about FCPS?
PH: I think our most pressing challenges are closing achievement gaps, addressing our persistent budget shortfalls, and meeting the growing need for classroom space.
The FCPS Strategic Plan, developed by the current school board and FCPS leadership, sets a bold goal to close all achievement gaps. On almost any measure of achievement, we see gaps in success based on socioeconomic status and learning disabilities. We can do better. I would like to see FCPS work more effectively with our community partners to expand access to quality early childhood programs, and be more intentional about integrating classrooms and having high expectations for all students.
I continue to advocate that we improve transparency on this issue by developing an equity scorecard, prominently linked to the home page of the FCPS web site, that will provide updated data on major student achievement measures, broken out by demographic subgroups.
In my response to question 4 below, I will discuss how we are addressing the projected budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2017. I think we also have a larger, ongoing budget challenge that needs a strategic solution. Because school boards in Virginia can not raise revenue, we depend on local and state government (and, to a minimal extent, federal grants) for funding. After seven years of growing enrollment and even more rapidly rising costs, we find that even increasing revenues during some of those years have not kept pace with the need.
FCPS is spending $1,000 less per child, in real dollars, than we were in 2008. Those savings have been found by raising class size twice, freezing teacher pay four times, and cutting central office positions to the point where principals tell me support for schools is suffering. Those cost-saving measures are not sustainable, and neither is the current revenue structure. We must work with our partners in state and local government to diversify the revenue base and ensure that revenue projections better reflect true costs.
Many schools in the Hunter Mill District have been under increasing pressure for additional classroom space. Across the county as a whole, almost 1,000 classrooms are in trailers and our renovation cycle is 10 years longer than the industry standard.
School infrastructure bonds always receive overwhelming support from the community, but the county government is limited in how much debt it can incur every year. As a result, school construction funding has not kept pace with growing enrollment. The current school board has worked collaboratively with county leaders to find some short-term solutions, but more work needs to be done. This community must have a long-term strategic plan for capital funding that reflects true needs and takes full advantage of opportunities for co-locating school and county facilities. That kind of planning requires continuing high-level cooperation.
RN: The school system is facing a record budget gap. What are your ideas for closing the gap? Can it be done?
PH: First, it’s important to note that the projected shortfall for Fiscal Year 2017 is not a deficit, as that term is usually understood. School boards in Virginia must always end the year with a positive budget balance. The current school board has worked with FCPS budget staff to bring that ending balance down to less than 2 percent of the total operating budget, a tight margin, but one we believe is responsible.
Given current assumptions about costs and revenues, FCPS budget staff project a $70 million shortfall for Fiscal Year 2017 (school year 2016-17). I am committed to NOT closing that gap by short-changing teachers or raising class size, so we must find other potential cost savings. I encourage readers to do what I’ve done and go to the FCPS budget tool and compile a list of potential cuts from the 100-plus items that the budget task force has identified. It’s not easy. I find it impossible to get to $70 million without including many programs that are, in my opinion, essential to who we are as a school system.
The gap can be closed, the only question being how. I know that this community values its schools very highly and is willing to invest when asked. Several members of the FY 2017 budget task force are interested in staying involved to help crowd-source revenue options.
The current local revenue structure in Virginia relies too heavily on property taxes, especially inappropriate in a rapidly urbanizing county like ours. The school board and other school advocates must continue working with local and state leaders to find a more fair, balanced approach to revenue.
I am encouraged by Governor McAuliffe’s pledge to increase long-overdue state support for public schools. More support from the state would be most welcome.
RN: FCPS received attention earlier this year for voting to offer protection for students facing bias for gender identity. How would you have voted/did you vote on that issue? What is your interpretation of this and have you spoken with any parents about what this means going forward.
PH: I voted in favor of extending our non-discrimination policy to transgender individuals. The vote was an important act of support for a vulnerable minority, and it put us on the right side of history and federal law. The school board received many emails and other expressions of support or concern, as we often do. I always take seriously the concerns of parents, students and teachers to any change in policy.
A significant number of parents seemed worried about the practical consequences of the policy change, especially regarding use of group bathrooms and locker rooms. In response to that concern, the school board directed Superintendent Garza to develop a system-wide regulation that respects the dignity and privacy of all students. The regulation, currently being developed, will codify the current practice in some of our schools of addressing transgender student needs individually, through consultation with the family and in a way that does not infringe on others’ privacy.
This approach has worked well so far, with no complaints. The school board will see the new regulation before it goes into effect, to ensure that it reflects the guidance given to the Superintendent.
Last spring, the school board also accepted the recommendation of the Family Life Education Curriculum Advisory Committee (FLECAC) to add lessons on gender identity to the middle and high school curriculum. I supported that vote because I think education is important in reducing bullying and discrimination. Because many parents prefer to teach about human sexuality and gender at home, the school board preserved the right of parents to opt their children out of any or all of the new lessons on gender identity.
Some parent advocates raised a concern that some of FLECAC’s recommendations would have shifted other FLE lessons on human development to the health curriculum, so the school board specifically amended the proposal and retained several lessons in FLE, thus preserving the parent opt-out right. The new FLE curriculum will take effect in the 2016-17 school year, and parents can view the lessons next summer before school starts.
RN: Large class size, overcrowded schools and a growing school population overall continue to be problems. What is the solution?
PH: How we handle growth comes down to vision and planning, and I believe the school board should have a greater role. For example, housing decisions — how much to build, of what type and where — are made by county leaders and then
communicated to the schools.
Not engaging school system leaders in land use planning is a missed opportunity to get ahead of the curve on building classrooms. The failure to plan together also means we are not building communities that have the kind of socioeconomic diversity and co-located public services that schools need to be successful.
The current school board has asked for continued dialogue with county leaders on facilities. I think that conversation should include developing a more collaborative land use planning process.
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?
PH: At this point, as the budget task force concludes it work and prepares to report to Superintendent Garza, I am reluctant to undermine their process by taking anything off the table, other than teacher salaries and class size. The school board will make final decisions about the FY 2017 budget in May. Between now and then, there are many opportunities for parents and students to participate in the conversation about costs and revenues. Readers can visit fcps.edu for more information and, of course, email the school board any time.
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?
PH: We must commit to raising teacher pay every year until FCPS teachers’ salaries are competitive again, and then make sure we remain competitive. Superintendent Garza has begun a comprehensive compensation study that will look at salaries and benefits across the division, so that our decisions about pay are based on employee input and apples-to-apples comparisons with other districts. As long as employees participate fully in that study, I think it will be very helpful.
While the compensation gap must be closed, it’s important to remember that working conditions also have a lot to do with teacher satisfaction. Through working conditions surveys and regular meetings with employee association leaders, the board checks in on how well teachers feel respected and valued as educators, how well their time is protected, and whether they feel like trusted partners in the evaluation process.
In the current national anti-teacher climate, the joy of teaching is very much at risk. We must make sure that FCPS is a place where teachers are at their best because they love working here.