Arlington, VA

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

APS parents are known for their engagement on issues with the School Board.  But why should parents direct their attention to the County Board?

The most obvious answer is because APS relies on the County for its funding. However, the County’s independent priorities and policies affect not just APS’ budget, but also its policies and decisions.

It is, therefore, in the County Board’s interest to understand the needs of its school system and community. County Board members should recognize the challenges APS faces and understand how it operates and uses its resources. They should appreciate and acknowledge how its own policies and decisions (housing, transportation, land use, zoning, “community benefits” from developers, bike trails, sidewalks, bond allocations, etc.) impact APS’ resources, how efficiently it can use those resources, and the resulting types of services and quality of education APS delivers.

APS parents should be just as concerned about County Board candidates’ positions on issues as they are about candidates for school board. With a special election to fill Erik Gutshall’s County Board seat upon us, now is the time for voters to ask themselves some questions they may not typically consider when voting for County Board:

  • How well do County Board members understand our school system, the expectations placed on Arlington public education today, and how school and County issues relate to each other?
  • Do they understand the effects of development, housing policy, and land use decisions on individual school enrollments, transportation and boundary policies, and APS’ ability to provide equitable and inclusive learning environments?
  • How will their positions impact school crowding; or how attendance zones can be drawn; or the instruction that can be implemented; or how employees can be compensated; or accessibility of school facilities for staff, substitute teachers, parents, volunteers, and even community members attending events and using facilities?
  • Do they have ideas about ways the County can partner with APS in providing supportive services (such as childcare or preschool, after-school enrichment, mental health services, transportation, etc.) so that APS can devote more of its budget and attention to academics and instruction?

The argument that only 20% of Arlington residents have children in the schools has grown tiresome. The fact is, far more than 20% of Arlington residents have had, have, or will have children in Arlington Public Schools. Furthermore, every resident is affected by the quality and reputation of Arlington’s school system and the resources it uses from the County’s coffers – whether in the form of property values, available amenities, quality of public services, or by inefficient delivery systems unnecessarily diverting money from other community needs and desires.

School and County Board members differ on even the most fundamental matters, such as the urgency of issues APS is facing due to demographic shifts in Arlington. A friend said recently, “Denial is bad public policy.” It is time for County Board members to stop denying the challenges APS and parents tell them they are confronting. The two boards do not have to see eye-to-eye, but it is not County Board members’ role to determine schools don’t need expensive parking because they prefer to encourage alternative transit, or that APS does not need more land or buildings because education will look different in the future. APS has 28,000 students to educate now, and Arlington is not the progressive city with the sophisticated public transit system the County likes to believe it is.

It is the School Board’s role to determine what its needs are and what Arlington public education looks like. It is the County Board’s responsibility to build trust and credibility with its residents, including current and future APS parents. (The same can be said of the School Board, but that’s another discussion.) Rather than setting a fixed budget amount and directing the School Board to make it work, the County should offer the support and resources its school district requires by coordinating services and working with the school system to efficiently meet its needs now and into the future so as to ensure Arlington’s overall ability to provide the highest quality public education and public services possible.

For its own part, APS needs to develop an actual master plan — aside from AFSAP and CIP planning. That master plan should be incorporated into the County’s comprehensive master plan along with those for other county departments. Our school system consumes almost half of the County’s total revenue. Does it not make sense that its needs be accounted for in the County’s comprehensive plan? And shouldn’t voters care how potential County Board members’ positions will impact our school system?

The pending special election is an opportunity for Arlington parents to realize the importance of their vote for County Board, and an opportunity for all Arlington residents to consider the benefits of including APS in the County’s comprehensive plan.

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, McMahon has been active in a range of County and school issues.  She has served on the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups and is the former president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

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