(June 18, 2018) Catherine Read interviews Ryan McElveen, At-Large member of the Fairfax County School Board. FCPS is the tenth largest school district in the nation, and Ryan has served on the board since 2011. While he is not serving on the school board, he works at the Brookings Institution, where he is a senior administrator at the John L. Thornton China Center. He welcomes the opportunity to have FCPS serve as a national leader on a variety of issues such as non-discrimination, gun violence prevention and dress code changes.
In the first segment, Catherine discusses with McElveen the proposed changes to the FCPS dress code. The board is concerned that the current language used in the dress code policy has led to too many instances of body shaming for young female students. The board overwhelmingly voted to strike language from the code that “banned outfits with low necklines that show cleavage” and outfits deemed “sexually provocative”. Over the years many female students shared instances where they have been singled out and embarrassed by teachers or administrators. The revised policy is designed to avoid these problems. McElveen agrees that teacher training will be critical to successful implementation of the revised code.
McElveen shares a short story about his own alma mater, Marshall High School. Over the years, during graduation, the boys and girls would wear crimson red gowns and the girls would wear blue ones. In an effort to unify the student body, the high school recently shifted to having everyone wear the same robe that incorporated both colors on the robe. In large and small ways, the schools are moving closer to a gender-neutral approach.
Healthy Food and Nutrition Services
Ryan has worked with various groups over the past seven years to move different issues forward. He was thrilled to work with the group Real Food for Kids to help improve healthy food options in FCPS cafeterias. Hand in hand with the division’s new Food and Nutrition Director Rodney Taylor, there have been a variety of new and exciting additions. Salad bars are being rolled out to all 141 elementary schools, giving children more options for healthy fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.
The Summer Meals for Kids Program is a new initiative that will offer free lunch to any student at certain FCPS schools every day throughout the summer. Additionally, any adult over the age of 18 can eat a healthy meal for only $2 cost. Considering that many students, especially in our Title 1 schools, get their only meal through the school lunch program during the school year, this is a critical program to help the most vulnerable in the community.
Shortage of facilities at FCPS is always a hot topic of conversation. McElveen shares some insights into why so many FCPS students are housed in trailers. For many years now, the Capital Improvement Budget of FCPS has been underfunded, in order to meet the other obligations of running the school system. As a result, FCPS is now on a 37 year replacement cycle (a 25 year replacement cycle is optimal). He shares that the board has successfully advocated for adding $25 million to the fund, they are still short $275 million to bring the fund up to standards. This means that students and teachers are working in outdated classrooms and labs, or are taking classes in trailers. In January of 2018 McElveen tweeted that “the number of FCPS students that attend classes in trailers each day is on par with the entire student population of Arlington County or Richmond. That is a travesty, it is an embarrassment and it is unacceptable”.
The root cause of this problem is funding. This year is the first year in a long time that the Board of Supervisors fully funded the school budget request. Because of the Dillon rule, counties such as Fairfax have limited options to raise revenue on their own. Therefore, they rely on the County (property taxes), the State (state tax revenue), and the Federal government (federal grant dollars), to round out the budget. A recent ballot initiative to raise money through a “Meals Tax” in Fairfax failed. Even though most neighboring jurisdictions currently assess this fee on restaurant meals (Washington, DC, Arlington, Alexandria, along with the cities of Falls Church and Fairfax, and the towns of Vienna and Herndon), the business community and the chamber of commerce ran a brutal campaign to block this initiative.
McElveen was thrilled that the BOS agreed to fully fund the school budget for 2018-2019. One of the most pressing issues that the board is dealing with involves teacher pay. Since the recession of 2018 and several years of pay freezes, FCPS fell far behind its neighboring jurisdictions in teacher pay. It has been a challenge to both recruit and retain teachers, who often leave for higher-paying opportunities. Raising teacher pay, which is included in this budget, will help work toward the goal of improved retention, especially for mid-career teachers. The board continuously evaluates the 5-year retention rate to see how they are doing in this area. After the General Assembly passed the Medicaid Expansion bill this past session, McElveen is excited about the prospect of millions of dollars flowing down from the state coffers to help invest in both students and teachers.
When McElveen was first elected to the school board, he was 25 years old. He was young and technologically savvy, and used this to his advantage. He quickly recognized that social media was a fantastic tool to reach his constituents, and to obtain real-time feedback. As an At-Large board member in a county with a population of 1.1 million people, it is just not physically possible to meet with every single person that he represents, but he can connect digitally with them. He has witnessed the rise of social media as a key communication tool, and has seen how it can be used to organize and move issues forward.
Today, he sees both parents and students utilizing these same tools to lead on a variety of important issues. Over the past few years there have been many programs on the “chopping block” each year, as the school system looks to balance the budget. When certain programs such as foreign language immersion or music in the elementary schools come up for review, he has seen parents and students come together to testify and organize around saving these very valuable programs.
On the student side, this past year after the Parkland shootings in Florida, students used social media to help organize walk outs and protests, to call attention to the issue of Gun Violence Prevention. McElveen was impressed with how respectful, responsible and productive these demonstrations were. He is very proud of the many FCPS students who have stepped up to speak out for the things that they believe in. He wants to support student leaders so that they can develop the leadership skills that they will need in college and beyond.
In the final segment, McElveen talks about the academy programs that are thriving at FCPS today. These are hands-on training and learning programs that give students a unique opportunity to take advanced technical and specialized courses that successfully integrate career and academic preparation. These centers include programs for Animal Sciences, Automotive Technology and Collision, Carpentry, Cosmetology, Culinary Arts and HVACR. Other specialized programs include Fashion Design, Theater, Health Informatics, Nursing, Fire and Rescue, and Automotive Dealers. If students are interested in any of these areas, they should speak with their guidance counselor to learn more and find out how they can apply.
You can follow Ryan McElveen on Twitter (@RyanLMcElveen) and on Facebook www.facebook.com/VoteRyanMcElveen