Pupils friends teasing a pupil alone in elementary school

Bullying and Harassment Happens at Fall Church City Public Schools…

…Despite Attempts by the Superintendent and Principals to Minimize and Deny It

Bullying Has Long Lasting Impact on Children Who Are Victims

Comparing Professional Climate Survey with “In-House” Product

April 29. 2016

Becky Smerdon, PhD is a Falls Church City resident and has 20 years of experience conducting education research. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the impact of school climate on secondary students’ engagement and academic achievement, using large-scale survey data.

Liz Hume, holds a JD and an MA in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding. She is an expert in the field of conflict resolution and is the Senior Director at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. She wrote her capstone on the impact anti-bullying programs have on reducing bullying behavior in schools and how can schools design evidenced based programs that are effective in reducing bullying. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

You may have seen that the Falls Church City School Board recently voted to conduct a teacher survey that addresses, among other things, many important school climate dimensions. What you may not know is that Falls Church City Public Schools administered climate surveys to students, parents, and teachers at TJ, MEH, and GMHS this school year. (Teachers were not surveyed at MEH.) The surveys show how students, teachers, and parents feel about the climate of ours schools, and these perceptions crash up against FCCPS’ messaging about the quality of our schools. Indeed, it is our experience that FCCPS minimizes and denies that bullying happens in our schools.

Make no mistake, bullying has significant and long lasting impact on our children. Children who are bullied are much more likely to suffer anxiety, depression or self-harm, not to mention the impact on their academic engagement and achievement. Virginia school boards have been required by law to include bullying prevention as a part of character education since 2005, and school boards are expected to include bullying as a prohibited behavior in their student codes of conduct. FCCPS policy states that “bullying” means any aggressive and unwanted behavior that is intended to harm, intimidate, or humiliate the victim; involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the aggressor or aggressors and victim; and is repeated over time or causes severe emotional trauma. “Bullying” includes cyber-bullying and does not include ordinary teasing, horseplay, argument, or peer conflict (FCCPS Standards of Student Conduct-Regulation 9.34R). Although no federal law directly addresses bullying, when bullying becomes a form of harassment, federally-funded schools (including FCCPS) have an obligation to resolve the harassment. A school that fails to respond appropriately to harassment of students based on a protected class may be violating one or more civil rights laws enforced by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice.

The school climate surveys administered at TJ and GMHS were conducted by the National School Climate Center (NSCC). NSCC is one of the nation’s leaders in school climate reform and they have been conducting school climate surveys for nearly 15 years. We applaud FCCPS for administering climate surveys and FCCPS made a sound decision contracting with this organization to administer surveys in 2 of our schools. The school climate survey administered to students and parents (not teachers) at MEH was developed by FCCPS.

This is the first in a series of articles about the school climate survey data and it focuses on bullying at MEH because research shows that bullying peaks during middle school. Secondarily, the MEH survey allows us to make a secondary point by illustrating why it is important to administer good surveys and to report all of the data and more importantly then actually do something with it.

It is not clear why MEH’s survey was developed “in house,” while TJ and GMHS had professional administration and reporting. Survey development is a science and for good reason; good surveys are necessary to collect good data. Among the many important characteristics of good surveys is developing carefully worded, concise questions and responses that leave little room for interpretation. There are a number of significant design flaws in the MEH survey. For example, the survey includes the following question: I believe that MEH is preparing me for college and a career in the 21st century. The response categories are: (1) yes, I agree, (2) mostly, and (3) no, not really. There are a few problems with this survey item. First, it assumes that all students know what it means to be “prepared for college and a career in the 21st century;” there is no “don’t know” category. One of us, Dr. Smerdon, is a national expert on the topic of college and career readiness and she doesn’t know what is meant by this item.

Second, the response options do not provide clear, definitive statements on both ends of the continuum—“no, not really” is not the same as “no.” An alternative would have been to create 5 response options: strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree, don’t know. This approach allows students to indicate they do not know, allows for clear differentiation between agreement and disagreement, and reflects that agreement is not always black and white. These may seem like small things, but they make a big difference. It is for this reason that we: (1) recommend caution when reviewing and interpreting the MEH survey results and (2) are deeply disappointed that the NSCC survey was not administered at MEH.

Like the TJ and GMHS surveys, we recently obtained the MEH survey results through a FOIA request. We could not find survey results on the FCCPS, TJ, MEH, or GMHS websites, which is a shame particularly because the NSCC reports of survey results for TJ and GMHS are very thorough and informative. Item level response rates are especially important to share because there are many different interpretations of the response.

For example, in Mr. Harris’ 12/13/15 email to MEH parents, he reported the following:

The percentages below are a combination of “yes” and “mostly” responses for that particular question, with at least 65% saying “yes.”

  • 99% feel safe at school (building security).
  • 97% feel that MEH provides a safe learning environment where students can learn, grow, and be themselves.
  • 96% feel that teachers and admin care about their success.
  • 95% feel that MEH is a place where all students are made to feel welcome.

As parents of 4 children in MEH, we have a different lens when we review the responses. We’re very concerned about instances where a lot of kids responded “yes, I agree” or “no, not really.” For example, when asked if they feel safe at school, we interpret “mostly” to mean that there are times they do not feel safe. We prefer to focus on the “yes, I agree” response because we want our children, and your children, to always feel completely safe at school—we do not want “mostly safe” for our children.

Using this lens, our interpretation of the data are different:

  • 83% feel safe at school (building security).
  • 66% feel that MEH provides a safe learning environment where students can learn, grow, and be themselves.
  • 64% feel that teachers and 79% feel that admin care about their success.
  • 68% feel that MEH is a place where all students are made to feel welcome.

Another example from Mr. Harris’ 12/13/15 email with our interpretation of the data following each bullet:

  • About 20% of students said that they do not feel comfortable telling a teacher, counselor, or administrator if they have a concern.  (He went on to write: “While this number does not seem high……”)

Our interpretation:

  • Only 33% of students indicated that “yes, I agree” that “I feel comfortable telling a teacher if I have a concern.” 42% of students responded “yes, I agree” to telling feeling comfortable telling a counselor and 38% of them responded “yes, I agree” to telling an administrator.

Personally, we’d like to see this be 100%–every one of our children responds definitively that “yes, I agree.”

Another example from Mr. Harris’ 12/13/15 email:

  • 10% of students said that bullying is a problem at MEH.

Our interpretation:

  • 64% of students responded “no” to the survey question: “I feel that bullying is a problem at MEH. 11% responded “yes” and 25% responded “somewhat.” 1 out of 3 MEH students feels that bullying (either definitively—yes or to some degree—somewhat) is a problem at MEH.

Survey quality issues notwithstanding, as parents of MEH students, we have a very different interpretation of the school climate survey than the principal. We expect our children to attend schools where they feel safe all of the time and are not bullied. We expect safety, bullying, harassment to be taken seriously and addressed immediately and not minimized which is often the case at MEH. As one parent wrote on the MEH survey: “Deeply disturbed by many incidents of bullying at the school.” Another parent wrote: “Leadership handles disciplinary issues in a chaotic and inexperienced manner. For example, kids are bullied, sexually harassed, and scream foul language in the cafeteria….the problem is not that there are problems but that leadership does not effectively and professionally deal with them.”

Our children have a legal right to these protections. Furthermore, we expect a school system where good surveys are administered and all data are reported so that our leaders can make decisions based on good data and our community may better understand our schools and our children’s and educators’ experiences in them. Finally, we are troubled by the need of the school administration to neutralize or deny any behavior that is bullying or harassment in our schools. This repeated inability to accept the fact that bullying and harassment occurs at MEH and downplaying the fact that 20% of the students do not feel comfortable telling an appropriate person (we interpret the responses to say 1 in 3 do not feel comfortable, but consider 20% to be high as well) contributes to a culture that allows bullying and sexual harassment to flourish at MEH.

In our next articles, we will share school climate results from TJ and GMHS and provide some research-supported recommendations for improving school climate.

Male hand rolling five dice on green felt

New School: Crap Shoot for the City and a Sure Thing for Developers

  • Time Now for Parents to Engage: Examine Whether Council is Gambling With Classroom Education Funding

  • Staggering Building Debt Will Impact Instructional Costs

  • Currently Developers Have No Risk: Burden on the Backs of the Citizens

By Ira Kaylin

April 20, 2016

Over the past two weeks the City Manager and School Superintendent have provided an update on the GMHS Campus Development. The presentations remained superficial; important data continued to be hidden behind the mask of Proprietary Information as permitted under Virginia’s Public Private Partnership regulations. Nonetheless, some data was provided: the School Superintendent was again selling the need and benefits of the campus development while the City Manager was marginally more nuanced than his counterparty regarding the enormous financial risks posed by the GMHS project. However, the questions asked by members of the respective audiences were, on the whole, excellent.

Subsequent to the Town Hall meetings the City Council voted to delay the request for Phase II RFPs effectively postponing a Referendum vote until next May.

Nonetheless, the following information may be useful to gauge the financial cost of the current proposal. Thus it could be useful as a reference point for possible future changes in project design and scope. For the purpose of analysis the cost remains at $112,000,000. The actual figure could be less (a renovation or using a modular school construction approach) or it could be larger (if a pool is included in the current proposal).

Context

We had been repeatedly told, by the School Board and then Chair Susan Kearney that GMHS construction would not cost the city’s taxpayers anything. It was expected that the revenue generated by the projected commercial development would cover all costs.

On the other hand, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) stated, in its October, 2014 public presentation, that no developer would initiate investment until the City had secured full funding of the school i.e., the City had to have “skin in the game”.

The School Board was entirely wrong and the ULI professionals entirely correct.

CRAPSIt is essential that voters understand the investors and debtors (in this case City taxpayers) have completely different priorities and concerns.

Investors really have only one concern; debt repayment. The lower the interest rate the less risk they are willing to take. A debt issuance by the City of Falls Church is considered a safe investment as long as the City’s reserves are adequate and its willingness to repay the debt as expressed as a Referendum approval is achieved.

INVESTORS REALLY DO NOT CARE HOW THE CITY FUNDS ITS DEBT. FUNDING THE DEBT IS THE CITY’S PROBLEM NOT THE INVESTORS. They do not care if city services are eliminated or special taxes applied. Please note that debt service payments supersede all other City financial obligations.

Thus the entire risk of debt repayment lies with the City irrespective of the success or failure of the commercial development.

Developer’s primary/sole objective, on the other hand, is to maximize profit. As such Developers are not overly concerned how the City funds its debt, unless significant upfront money is required, since it is not really relevant to them.

Moreover, they can terminate a project at almost any time during the life of the 30 year bond term if is in their interest to so do.

It is an open question as to how much money, if any, developers would be willing to provide. Not to mention the terms and conditions that would be imposed.

Thus, all of the massive risks of this project are on the backs of the citizens of Falls Church for the next thirty years if debt issuance is approved.

Financial Parameters

As a result of the Town Hall meetings it was confirmed/learned that:

The projected cost of the project was $112 million,

Developers would require that the $112 million Campus project be funded by the City prior to initiation of commercial development. Understandably Developers want 100% certainty that the current GMHS/MEH will be relocated, before committing to a commercial project as predicted by the ULI, Without the actual school relocation Developers would lack the certainty that land would be available for commercial development.

The debt issuance by the City would be in the form of a 30 year, flat debt service payment (similar to home mortgages). Based on this data it is calculated that interest payments are estimated to be approximately $80 million for a total cost (using the City’s assumption of 4 percent interest) of around $192 million.

Per Capital Comparison

At this point it may be useful to compare relative per capita school capital costs of Arlington and Fairfax. The figures are designed to provide an “order of magnitude” comparison.

  • Arlington is expected to issue approximately $100 million in new debt for school capital costs this year. Arlington’s population is around 225,000 thus the per capita cost is about $445 per capita.
  • Fairfax expects to issue around $155 million in new debt for school capital; its population is around 1.1 million; thus per capita spending is around $140. That figure is on the low side since some Fairfax cities are responsible for school construction.
  • At $112 million the per capita capital cost in Falls Church with a population of approximately 13,000 is around $8,600. If the $80 million in interest cost is included as part of the per capita cost the actual cost would rise to roughly $14,700.

Additionally both Arlington and Fairfax use a debt structure that is far less expensive than the one chosen by our City Council. If the City used the same structure as Arlington and Fairfax the total cost would be reduced by $34 million or a total cost of around $157 million.

The City Council and the City Manager should be asked by the citizens to explain why they had chosen a financing mechanism that is around 20% more expensive than our neighbors.

The City Manager has stated that the project is the most complicated the City has ever undertaken and that there are many risks due to the large number of “moving parts”. In other words the City has not been able to really measure the real risks and costs of the GMHS campus redevelopment.

Given the breadth and depth of the GMHS campus project the Post believes it is would be useful to break down the analysis into three separate articles.

The next article will identify missing financial information and logical inconsistencies and contradictions. The missing information and logical inconsistencies should be remedied prior to any future RFP circulation. It will be explained why the maximum tax rate increase is more likely 20 cents rather than the 15 cents presented by the City Manager.

The third article will describe among other things why some parents will paying more than others for the GMHS project.

Many People Hands Holding Red Straight Word Protection

Follow Up: Increasing Safety of Children Demands Concrete Action

By Dr. Marc Cottrell

Dr. Cottrell is a city resident and a clinical psychologist with a practice in the District of Columbia. He specializes in treating traumatic stress, including working with survivors of child sex abuse and domestic violence.

Sex crimes against children is not a static problem. Rather, it is a problem that waxes and wanes. Those who have for a long time been sexually aroused by children may finally reach a threshold where they are no longer able to resist acting on their urges. Those who are under suspicion may be able to restrain their abusive be
havior for a short or prolonged period. Some predators live a life where they geographically relocate on a fairly regular basis to avoid scrutiny and suspicion.

Adults who commit sex crimes against children blend into the community. Their very ordinariness serves as a cloak they wear to mask their deviancy. Their involvement in the community creates an image of them that serves to protect them against suspicion and doubt. Cognitive dissonance is the struggle we all face when new information directly contradicts closely held beliefs. If someone is a long time friend of the family it is hard to accept they are victimizing our children. If someone is a pillar of the community it is hard to accept they engage in crimes against children. It is difficult to accept a “good person” is capable of doing bad things. It is this dissonance that allows people to rationalize the suspicious behavior of others. It is this dissonance that leads people to support people convicted of sex crimes against children.

Many People Hands Holding Red Straight Word ProtectionThe behavior of the elected officials in Falls Church City and prominent members of the community is especially egregious because of the power they wield in the community. The issue is the elected and prominent people in the Falls Church Community did not sanction Michael Gardner for his predatory behavior.

They instead chose to speak on his behalf. Their actions illustrate a lack of understanding of their role in protecting the children of the community. Adults who seek to harm children are a fact of life, and their presence in the community is inescapable. As such, protecting children requires a proactive community effort.

A question often asked is what can a city can do to protect its children. The answer is relatively straight forward: education is key to prevention. The action of supporting Michael Gardner by elected officials illustrates their ignorance of the danger of crimes against children. Establishing programs that teach members of the community how to spot predatory behavior would be a tremendous step forward in protecting children. The establishment of programs to teach children to recognize dangerous and manipulative behaviors on the part of adults, and programs of how to defend themselves when attacked would be a tremendous step forward. Education will allow the community to spot dangerous behavior. Education will teach adults what to do when they suspect dangerous behavior. Education will help children defend themselves when faced with dangerous behavior.

There apparently is an effort to create a code of behavior for city council members to prevent public support of people convicted of crimes. Such a movement highlights the desperate need of education at the highest levels of city government. A code of behavior does not change the underlying beliefs that allowed people to justify writing letters of support for Michael Gardner. It merely prevents the writing of letters, and does nothing to address the beliefs that a convicted pedophile is deserving of leniency. Such a policy is a diversion from the issue of how to defend the community from dangerous people, and does nothing to increase the safety of children in the city.

Council Member Dave Snyder (l) criticized judge from Council chair for not permitting he and other citizens to speak in behalf of already convicted and confessed GMHS teacher Frank Marino.  Council Member Phil Duncan requested consideration by Judge for convicted sex offender Michael Gardner after he was convicted.

Prominent Members and Elected Officials of City Increase Risk of Child Sex Abuse

By Dr. Marc Cottrell

Dr. Cottrell is a city resident and a clinical psychologist with a practice in the District of Columbia. He specializes in treating traumatic stress, including working with survivors  of child sex abuse and domestic violence.

March 15, 2015

Sex crimes against children perpetrated by adults are all too common in the news, and frighteningly common in everyday life. A question asked in the aftermath of such crimes is how the perpetrator was able to victimize children, especially when crimes are committed in settings where adults are prominent (e.g., schools, community centers). In Pennsylvania three Franciscan friars are each charged with conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children. These charges stem from their knowing of allegations of abuse of children leveled at a fellow friar, and doing nothing to stop him (http://wpo.st/938M1). As a result over 80 children were sexually abused over the course of decades. The reason why these friars took no action may never be known. However, it is clear their inaction provided cover for an adult to sexually abuse children.

Two psychologists, Drs. Anna Salter and Carla van Dam have written excellent books on the topics of predators and how they target children and adolescents. The authors explain in detail how predators are able to exploit a community’s reluctance to confront its worst fears. Reading one or all of these books makes it clear the predator friar was less devious, and more the beneficiary of his fellow friar’s inability or unwillingness to recognize and intervene to prevent sexual abuse of children.

The knowledge of how predators operate is known and, with little effort available to communities. Despite the easy access to knowledge of how predators target victims they continue to infiltrate schools, sports teams, churches, and organizations where children gather.  A pedophile’s ability to offend lies in their ability to exploit shadows where the light of knowledge and awareness of predatory behavior does not penetrate. The substance of these shadows is a lack of knowledge of predatory behavior, lack of communication within the community about suspicious behavior, and adults not understanding what their children tell them after an assault occurs. The three Franciscan friars cast a shadow that allowed the predator in their midst to perpetrate crimes upon children in seemingly plain sight.

Council Member Dave Snyder (l) criticized judge from Council chair for not permitting he and other citizens to speak in behalf of already convicted and confessed GMHS teacher Frank Marino. Council Member Phil Duncan requested consideration by Judge for convicted sex offender Michael Gardner after he was convicted.

OFFICIAL SUPPORT FOR CONVICTED PEDOPHILES–Council Member Dave Snyder (l) criticized an Arlington Circuit Court Judge during a Council meeting for not permitting city residents to speak in behalf of convicted and confessed GMHS teacher Frank Marino who took indecent liberties with a minor male student. Council Member Phil Duncan (r) requested compassionate consideration by Judge for convicted sex offender Michael Gardner after he was convicted.

The conviction of a pedophile in a well-heeled city demonstrates how prominent members of a community can create an environment that provides opportunity for predators to victimize children. Falls Church City, ten miles west of Washington, DC, serves as both an example and warning of how communities can fail to protect children. The city, according to the United States Census Bureau, has an estimated population of 13,601 and has a footprint of two square miles. The estimated median family income from 2009-2013 was $120,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau over 74% of the city’s residents attained a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The level of education in this small city is far above the national average of 25% of adults over 25-years of age attaining an undergraduate degree.

In 2012 Michael Gardner was convicted of assaulting three young girls attending a sleep-over in his home. After being convicted sixteen prominent members of the Falls Church City community wrote letters of support requesting leniency in sentencing. Letter writers include a sitting Falls Church City Council member, the city’s Commissioner of Revenue, a current substitute teacher in the city’s school district, and the owner and publisher of the local newspaper The Falls Church News Press. A letter was written by a woman identifying as having served as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer whose role is to represent the interests of abused children in court. Another letter was written by a Supervisor of Public Works for the city. Several letter writers offered their degrees to establish their bona fides as credible character references. Advanced degrees described in the letters not already mentioned above include a Ph.D. in International Relations who at one time worked for DARPA, and a letter from a then-active member of the Virginia Bar.

Untitled

PLEADS FOR GARDNER: Former Vice Mayor, current Planning Commissioner and long term GMHS career and substitute teacher, Lindy Hockenberry,  came to the defense of Michael Gardner with a pleading letter to the judge that the convicted sex offender deserved consideration.

Teachers are mandated reporters when abuse or neglect of children is suspected. That a current substitute teacher wrote a letter of support for a convicted pedophile calls into question their ability to recognize predatory behavior. Minimizing the seriousness of the crime by supporting an adult convicted of sex crimes against children indicates the individual does not recognize the seriousness of child sex abuse. An inability or unwillingness to recognize the impact of sexual abuse creates opportunity for pedophiles.

The owner and publisher of the local paper, the Falls Church News Press wrote a letter of support for Michael Gardner. The same paper failed to report on the 2015 arrest of Falls Church City resident Ralph Freeman who was found in possession of more than 10,000 images and 180 videos of rape of children. The support of a convicted pedophile, and the lack of reporting of local crimes against children raises questions as to the paper’s ability or willingness to provide information to the community.  The absence of information about sex crimes prevents the community from becoming aware of dangerous individuals, and creates opportunities for pedophiles.

A sitting member of the Falls Church City council and the city’s current Commissioner of Revenue wrote letters of support for Michael Gardner. The role of these positions are to set city-wide policy and to arrange for the financial support of policy decisions. The support of a pedophile indicates an inability or unwillingness to recognize the seriousness of sex crimes against children. The support of a convicted pedophile by two people in powerful positions within the city’s government begs the question of is the city capable of forming policies to keep children safe.

The problem of individuals supporting an adult who sexually victimizes children goes deeper than predatory behavior on an individual level. It became public knowledge the sitting city council member wrote a letter of support for Michael Gardner before being re-elected in November 2015. The political party of which he is a member did not pull its support of him despite his public support of a convicted pedophile. The substitute teacher who wrote a letter of support for a child rapist continues to teach, the school system has not sanctioned this individual and continues to allow them into the city’s classrooms. The lack of censure and the lack of consequences for public support of a convicted sex offender strongly suggests governing bodies within the Falls Church City community do not understand the aftermath of child sex abuse.

Silence implies consent, and not sanctioning those who support an adult convicted of sex crimes against children indicates the governing structure of the community does not understand the aftermath of child sex abuse.

The city’s response to Michael Gardner’s conviction is not unique. In 2004 Frank Marino, a drama teacher at Falls Church George Mason High School was convicted of indecent liberties with a minor. Twenty community members were present in the courtroom during sentencing. Thirty letters of support were submitted to the presiding judge. An article in the Falls Church News Press, since scrubbed from the internet but captured in a local blog documents the belief the Falls Church community members present were “treated in an adversarial and unfair manner.” The expressed concern was not for the victim, but rather the support offered by the community was not adequately considered by the presiding judge. Focusing on the bruised egos of those who supported an adult convicted of crimes against a minor demonstrates a lack of concern for the actual crime.

Protecting children from pedophiles requires the light of knowledge and awareness to banish the shadows in which pedophiles thrive. This is done by communities learning what constitutes predatory behavior, and developing a mechanism through which to communicate suspicions or concerns. Most importantly, communities need to come together and censure individuals in powerful positions who, through their actions, demonstrate an inability or unwillingness to recognize the seriousness of sex crimes against children.

As demonstrated by the three Franciscan friars, a few individuals in prominent positions who do not recognize the seriousness of predatory behaviors pose a grave danger to a community’s children. Individuals cast shadows, and individuals in prominent and powerful positions have the ability to cast deep shadows that can create an environment favorable to predatory behavior against children. Wealth and education are not in themselves protective; child sex abuse is not confined to a specific socioeconomic strata. Increasing the community’s understanding of predatory behavior, increasing the understanding of the aftermath of child sex abuse, and most importantly censuring members of the community who ignore or minimize the abuse of children are three methods that help keep children safe.

EDITORS NOTE:  The letters to the Judge in the Michael Gardner case can be accessed via the attached PDF file:

Official Record of Supporting Letters to Judge in Behalf of Michael Gardner

Key To Education a

Parent Petitioners Are Victorious with Special Education School Board Policy Change

FCCPS Board Approves Policy Change as Judge Encourages Cooperation

E-Mails Reveal Board Vice Chair John Lawrence’s Retaliation Efforts

E-Mails Show FCNP Editor Benton and Lawrence Worked Directly on Issue

Article Information Compiled by Petitioners: William Royce, Daniel and Kristina Rice and Becky Smerdon and Edited by The Post Team

The parents petitioners celebrated a victory on Thursday February 25th in their efforts to ensure that needs of special education students would be heard by FCCPS school board members and the community without being subject to filtering. Parents sought relief from a Judge in Arlington Court when the school board refused to hear their concerns about policy changes they had passed in August. On February 25, parent petitioners, before Arlington County Judge Fiore, formally approved revisions to the language in FCCPS School Board policy 5.12 as encouraged by the Judge in a previous hearing. The new language revises controversial changes to the policy made by the FCCPS School Board in 2015.   Four parents of students with disabilities filed a petition last September on behalf of special education students charging that the changes to the policy would have allowed potential censorship of Special Education Advisory Committee (SPEAC) reports with recommendations on the unmet needs of students with disabilities, and revision of public meeting minutes, as these committee work products would have been subject to approval by a school board liaison before publication or public access.

Board Can No Longer Dictate Committee Report Changes

The new language means that the school board liaison can no longer enforce changes to committee reports or minutes before release.  This change provided an opportunity for the petitioners to agree to dismiss the case and they chose not to continue with further proceedings. John Lawrence, FCCPS School Board Vice-Chair and SPEAC Liaison tried to pressure SPEAC chair, Kristina Rice, last June to edit the report and objected that the report included public comment from the meetings.   The chair drafted the report following precedence set for the content by the state-level Special Education Advisory Committee, which includes summary of public comment in their annual report. The chair used this protocol in order to create a vehicle to document and communicate concerns brought to the committee by parents of students with disabilities.group of happy people with disability having fun with tablet

Parent petitioners were also concerned with new policy language that allowed the school board to assign additional tasks to the volunteer committee which already had a comprehensive list of required state-mandated tasks.  FCCPS School Board spent in excess of $20,000 on legal fees, fighting legitimate concerns instead of sitting down with the parents to discuss problems with the August 2015 policy changes.   The petition was filed as a last course of action after the FCCPS School Board ignored the concerns raised by parents Becky Smerdon and Alison Kutchma in a letter delivered in August of 2015. (As a point of information, Alison Kutchma was not one of the petitioners, although she is the parent of recently-graduated special education students).

Arlington County Judge Provides Encouragement to Seek Settlement

In addition to the last court appearance, the parties appeared in court on December 10th at which time Judge Fiore recommended that FCCPS address the petitioners’ concerns, and suggested that the parties meet to work on a resolution; the FCCPS School Board met, without the parents, and revised the language on December 28th. While the parents are relatively pleased with the outcome of a revised policy, they are deeply disappointed with what they learned throughout the course of gathering evidence for the hearings.

Documentation of over 4,000 pages of emails, obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show FCCPS School Board Vice Chair, and SPEAC Liaison, John Lawrence, working behind the scenes  to  recruit members of SPEAC  to remove Becky Smerdon and Kristina Rice from SPEAC leadership positions with no just cause.  No committee member, member of the community or John Lawrence voiced any concerns with Kristina Rice’s leadership during the previous year, and the committee unanimously elected Becky Smerdon as chair for the 2015-2016 school-year.

Lawrence Works in the Shadows

The reasons John Lawrence would attempt to improperly orchestrate a removal of leadership are not at all clear, other than that he had opposed the publication of a data-based annual report that demonstrated that approximately 25% of special education parents expressed needs in many areas, and that he pressured the chair to change the content, as it was too negative, in his view.   Included among the committee members swayed by Lawrence are Melissa Bandy, Hilary Crocket, Nancy Romps and Andrew Manwaring, plus Bronwen Rankin, who officially resigned from the committee in January 2015 after attending only two meetings the previous year.

Former member, Rankin, publicly criticized the leadership at the first SPEAC meeting last fall, and made public protest to the school board about the SPEAC, without substantiating her claims, at the same time she was working behind the scenes with Lawrence to secretly organize SPEAC members to vote for change in leadership, even though she had not been involved with the committee for almost a full year.

Benton’s Single Source of Information

Also revealed in the FOIA emails: Lawrence worked directly with Nick Benton, the owner and editor of the Falls Church News Press to share information for publication prior to meetings, in an attempt to manipulate public opinion about the conflicts. Benton made no attempt to contact or interview the other parties involved in order to provide balanced reporting of the issues.

Petitioners are advising The Post team that they plan to make all of the FOIA email traffic available to the public, as well as recordings of the Special Education Advisory Committee Meetings.

 

 

Yellow road warning sign , Storm Coming , 3d render

City’s Financial Outlook: Possible Strong Storms Ahead

By Ira Kaylin

  • Falls Church News Press Creates Mystical Financial “Weather” Reports

  • Look for Cloudy Rhetorical Clouds and Scattered Inaccuracies

The Editor of the Falls Church News Press has once again published an article that is misleading with multiple inaccuracies.

As we begin the budget preparation season, it may be useful to provide the citizens of Falls Church a less colorful (rosy), but more accurate view.

In fairness to the FCNP it is the External Auditor who bears a good portion of the responsibility for the misleading comments.

The purpose of this article is to ensure that the Council understands:1) the limited value of the Auditor’s comments regarding the financial future of the City and, 2) the risks of basing future decisions on views that are backward looking not forward looking.

The External Auditor stepped beyond the technical and detailed parameters of an External Audit and ventured into the area of opinion. When asked to opine on the financial status of the City the Auditor

Yellow road warning sign , Storm Coming , 3d render

went beyond the scope of his mandate and offered opinions based on incomplete information and lack of knowledge on how the City’s budget is managed/manipulated.

What the Auditor did not say, but likely meant to say, is that his comments pertained to past performance and did not reflect views regarding the future outlook. In the context in which his comments were presented it seemed that he was suggesting that the City “drive by looking at the rear view mirror.”

To be clear, the actual Audit performed for the City’s Annual Comprehensive Financial Review (CAFR) is well done and appears to be thorough and accurate.

Specific Issues

The Auditor did say that Falls Church’s financial situation was strong, debt levels sound, and that its financial management was good. However, he also stated that the Council should be careful about violating financial policies without understanding possible future impacts.

That last statement is truly stunning. Board of Directors (equivalent to the City Council) would never instruct Management to violate policies. If policy limits are breached that breach has to be reported, by the External Auditor, to the Council and is called a “Reportable Condition” and must be corrected. For example, in the Fund Balance Policy the upper level of 17% is a target, while the lower limit of 12% is a hard number.

If the Council believes its policies are too restrictive (which they are not), the policy should be changed. Of course, all changes would be carefully reviewed by Rating Agencies.

In a subsequent conversation, the Auditor indicated that it would have been better to suggest that any policy changes be carefully reviewed for possible negative impacts. The Council should not violate policies.

As regards the above views, it is useful to note that the External Auditor, in offering his opinions, was unaware that:

—-Should the Mt. Daniel project be denied, the cost to the City could be in the millions. —-No funds are budgeted to maintain the Fund Balance at 17%.

—There no funding for “pay as you go” capital expenses (called Pay Go). Road repair and other maintenance are often funded by the Pay Go account. Thus those capital projects not bonded will be deducted from Fund Balance driving it further down from 17%.

—Actual school generated debt service is higher than reported since some expenses (e.g. School buses) were included as part of City’s debt service. Thus there is a lack of transparency in estimating/understated school costs when comparing relative expenditure shares.

—Proceeds from the Water Sale, even though earmarked for capital expenses, have been used to cover school expenses.

Change in Accounting Regulations

During the Auditor’s presentation to the Council it was noted that pension cost associated with teacher retirement funding now require that each individual municipality report the amount of its retirement shortfall (the City’s portion of the total shortfall is about $32 million). It was also reported that the State has no legal requirement to fund any portion of the shortfall (unfunded liability).

The Auditor, when asked if the shortfalls would affect credit ratings stated that impact would not be significant since Rating Agencies have been aware of the accounting change for awhile.

That comment is only partially accurate. Virginia’s credit rating will be largely unaffected since it has no legal obligation to contribute. The accounting change may well affect individual municipalities based on their debt levels and economic performance. Depending on Falls Church’s future debt and reserve levels we may be affected by our shortfall.

Internal Auditor

In an another stunning, head scratching, comment the External Auditor indicated that in terms of internal controls there are weaknesses that can be described as reflecting a “Significant Deficiency” but that these deficiencies are common among municipalities similar in size to Falls Church. Since they have told the City that there are weaknesses, they are protected against legal action should problems eventuate. The entire exposure to loss is borne by the City’s taxpayers not the Auditing firm.

He went on to opine that not much would be gained by hiring an Internal Auditor since we don’t have the fiscal resources and, anyway, smaller communities generally do not have an Internal Auditor.

Completely neglected is the benefit of having an Internal Auditor review the Falls Church’s City’s and School Division’s process and practices that permit serial and systemic construction cost overruns. Perhaps the cost of the Internal Auditor could be recouped through cost savings achieved by reducing numerous change orders/cost overruns.

If the Mt. Daniel project ends up costing millions, the cost of hiring an Internal Auditor could have been covered for a decade if the interaction with Fairfax had been more carefully managed. Maybe we would know why Thackeray school costs increased by 17 fold from original estimates and why the HVAC was not included in the costs for TJ expansion and renovation.

Rather than have Falls Church try to the do best we can, the Auditor is actually recommending that doing nothing should be our goal and justifies the City’s performance objective of achieving mediocrity.

The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) suggests that External Auditing firms be changed every few years to avoid Management and the Auditor becoming too “cozy” with each other.

Definitions

The role of the External Auditor can be defined as the following:

An external auditor performs an audit, in accordance with specific laws or rules, of the financial statements of a company, government entity, other legal entity, or organization, and is independent of the entity being audited.[1] Users of these entities’ financial information, such as investors, government agencies, and the general public, rely on the external auditor to present an unbiased and independent audit report.

External Auditors try to ensure that Financial Statements are accurate. Stakeholders decide how to interpret the data. One the most important users of the data are the Rating Agencies whose specific mandate is to evaluate the credit worthiness of publicly traded entities. Stock prices, for example, can be very sensitive to the nuances of these Audits.

Internal auditors who are members of a professional organization would be subject to the same code of ethics and professional code of conduct as applicable to external auditors. They differ, however, primarily in their relationship to the entities they audit. Internal auditors, though generally independent of the activities they audit, are part of the organization they audit, and report to management. Typically, internal auditors are employees of the entity, though in some cases the function may be outsourced. The internal auditor’s primary responsibility is appraising an entity’s risk management strategy and practices, management (including IT) control frameworks and governance processes. They are also responsible for the internal control procedures of an organization and the prevention of fraud.[7]

Breaking the Silence and Creating a Culture of Change: The Rice Family Expresses Appreciation

Stressing the Importance of Speaking Out When Some in Community Prefer Silencing

Daughter Will Represent Herself and Her Experiences 

Dear Participants of We Support the Girls,

We have been so uplifted by the visible support, caring and concern shown by so many members of our community who clearly care about child safety, justice, and having a safe and wholesome, healthy environment for our children. The kind wishes and solidarity shown go a long way in promoting the healing so badly needed by survivors, their families and our community.

As We Support the Girls” transitions from a sign campaign to more, the Rice family has decided to move on to work on other avenues to affect positive change in our community. Our daughter and our family recognize the importance of speaking out after four years of virtually being silenced. Our daughter feels strongly about representing herself and her experiences with her own voice; we are proud that she has chosen this path. We look forward to continuing to work with our community, and local and national leaders on activism to create a “culture change” as our daughter requested, where survivors of sexual abuse and assault are not shamed or silenced, but are supported. We want to extend a huge thank you to every member of our community who showed support. We will never forget your kindness. Our daughter encourages you to continue to do everything you can to “break the silence,” by talking with children, family members, friends, neighbors, leaders, and policy-makers.

We would especially like to thank the Falls Church City Police Department, the RAD team, the Commonwealth prosecutors, the Arlington County Victim Witness Program, the Beyer family, the Kutchma family, the Schwinds, Becky Smerdon, Marc Cotrell, Liz Hume, Sam Mabry, classmates, teachers, and all of the dear friends who stood beside us and offered moral and tangible support throughout the ordeal.

The Rice Family

Post Team Note: For those not familiar with the context of the Letter from the Rice Family, it follows the conviction of Michael Gardner for the sexual abuse of their daughter.  Gardner, the former head of the City’s Democratic Committee and spouse of the former Mayor, Robin Gardner, is now serving his sentence in a Virginia State Penitentiary.  More information on the Gardner case can be found on the WUSA Channel 9 website and in past issues of The Falls Church Post.