The oath of office remains the same, but the school board sworn in at Luther Jackson Middle School on Dec. 12 is not quite like any board seen in Fairfax County before.
11 of the 12 people who stepped up to the microphone at the front of Jackson’s auditorium to take the oath administered by Fairfax County Circuit Court Chief Judge Bruce D. White were women, four of them women of color.
Karl Frisch, the only man elected to the Fairfax County School Board on Nov. 5, will represent Providence District starting on Jan. 1 as the board’s first openly gay member.
At-large member Abrar Omeish is both the youngest person ever elected to the school board at 24 years old and the first Muslim woman to serve on the board. She wore a hijab and carried a Quran in one hand when taking the oath.
Her fellow freshman at-large representative Rachna Sizemore Heizer, a longtime disability justice advocate and the daughter of Indian immigrants, swore the oath of office while holding a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
With eight new members and all 12 seats filled by Democratic Party-endorsed candidates, the new Fairfax County School Board boasts fresh faces expected to further the progressive goals their predecessors started to tackle with a One Fairfax policy adopted in 2017 to ensure racial and social equity is considered in decision-making, an expansion of Fairfax County Public Schools’ nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity in 2016, and other measures.
“It is an extremely diverse school board, and that’s something we should be proud about,” Frisch said. “…This election shows us that diversity is our strength, and that we should lean into it, and that we have a lot of work to do for a lot of different people, and I think we’re all excited to get going.”
The first major agenda item awaiting the school board when the next four-year term begins on Jan. 1 is the school system’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021, which FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand will release on Jan. 9.
In the FY 2021 fiscal forecast presented to the current school board on Nov. 12, Fairfax County schools staff projected that FCPS will see a $160.7 million increase in expenditures from FY 2020.
That number, which staff emphasized is a broad, preliminary estimate and not a recommended change for the upcoming budget, reflects an anticipated 1,696 increase in student enrollment that will place more demand on special education, English as a second language, and other services.
The projected expenditure increase also encompasses $76.4 million for employee salaries, which will be boosted by a 2.5 percent average step increase and a 1 percent market scale adjustment. In addition, the cost of employee retirement, health, and workers’ compensation benefits will go up by an estimated $31.4 million.
FCPS also projects that FY 2021 will have a $17 million increase in expenditures for strategic investments, a category that includes principal pay as well as initiatives like substance abuse prevention and FCPSOn, which provides laptops to students.
The school system is projected to see a $39.5 million revenue increase on top of the county’s anticipated revenue growth of 1.9 percent, or $85.7 million, which would be split between the schools and county government, according to an FY 2021 fiscal forecast given to a joint work session of the school board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 26.
That still leaves FCPS with a projected shortfall of $79.1 million, though the expenditure and revenue forecasts will likely be updated by the time Brabrand presents his proposed budget.
While he declined to go into detail about the proposed budget he is in the process of putting together, the superintendent says market-competitive employee compensation remains a top priority, along with providing targeted social and emotional supports for students and enhancing professional training and development for staff.
“With this new board, I think it’s a chance to really revisit and…even reprioritize the strategic plan, make sure we’re focusing on the essential drivers for improved student success and for a stronger caring culture,” Brabrand said.
The annual budget cycle is always daunting, but it may be especially intimidating this coming year after the school board experienced such a substantial turnover in membership.
Fortunately, the newcomers still have a few more experienced colleagues around to guide them through the process.
Karen Corbett Sanders and Tamara Derenak Kaufax were reelected by the school board as its chair and vice chair, respectively, in July. Corbett Sanders has represented the Mount Vernon District on the board since 2015, while Derenak Kaufax was first elected to the Lee District seat in 2011.
Karen Keys-Gamarra was reelected in November to her first full term as the board’s third at-large member, now joined by Omeish and Sizemore Heizer after the outgoing Ilryong Moon withdrew his candidacy in August and Ryan McElveen opted to run for Board of Supervisors chair instead.
Rounding out the four returning school board members is Megan McLaughlin, who has been the Braddock District representative since 2012.
In addition to Omeish, Sizemore Heizer, and Frisch, the new incoming school board members are Melanie Meren (Hunter Mill), Elaine Tholen (Dranesville), Ricardy Anderson (Mason), Laura Jane Cohen (Springfield), and Stella Pekarsky (Sully.)
A former parent-teacher association president and the mother of two current FCPS students, Cohen never expected to run for office, but she decided to challenge Elizabeth Schultz for the Springfield District seat, because she felt the two-term school board member was not adequately representing her community.
One of three new school board members with experience as an educator in Fairfax County, along with Tholen and Pekarsky, Cohen plans to use her perspective as a former preschool teacher and substitute for FCPS to advocate for teachers on the board beyond compensation.
She wants to address reporting structures, support staff, class sizes, and other factors that affect teachers’ ability to do their jobs.
“We as a school system, as a country have to stop taking advantage of the things that drive people to become teachers,” said Cohen, who became audibly emotional during her swearing-in. “The love and support that we feel for our kids, that can’t come on the backs of salaries, where you can’t live where you work, where you can’t take care of your kids, where you’re having to work at Kohl’s on the weekends and the holidays. That’s not valuing our teachers.”
Omeish says she wants to settle into her new office and conduct community outreach, including possible town halls and school tours, before putting forward specific policy goals or proposals.
Ultimately, however, she hopes to follow through on campaign promises to prioritize issues related to equity and mental health.
She also hopes the board will work with state legislators to improve student-to-staff ratios for psychologists, social workers, parent liaisons, and other essential non-teaching staff in schools.
“I'm inspired by all the people who were a part of this movement, who came forward, and who now are sharing all their ideas, and sometimes critiques, about what they want to see,” Omeish said. “…Obviously, the campaign has been a roller coaster of emotions, the ups and the downs, but I’m really glad that we’re here and looking forward to building relationships with everyone and making things happen.”
Brabrand echoed Omeish’s excitement to see what Fairfax County’s new school board will do.
“I think it’s a real opportunity to accelerate the progress we’re already making as a school system around excellence and equity,” the superintendent said. “…I see a lot of passion and energy with the eight new members and with the four who are returning, re-energized and excited to form a new partnership, I think it's going to bring more good news to Fairfax County Public Schools.”