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Board of Supervisors, School Board Team Up

Joint retreat Saturday begets promises of collaboration.

This is the first of a two part series about the Feb. 25, 2012, joint retreat of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the Fairfax County School Board.  Part I is an overview of what many were calling a historic meeting. 

Part II, published Tuesday, Feb. 28, review Saturday's discussion about public school, community college and four-year university collaboration needed to produce a skilled workforce for the changing job market and economy.

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The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the county's school board began to put together a plan Saturday to increase communication and improve collaboration on county projects at this weekend's joint all-day retreat, the first in recent memory, according to Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova.

All members were in attendance, as well as Superintendent Jack Dale and County Executive Tony Griffin.

“We’re not going to decide anything today,” Bulova told attendees at the meeting she co-chaired with School Board President Janie Strauss. “By the end of the day, we will put in place a structure for continuing our discussions on what we determine to be the projects we will work on.” 

Budget Discussions Off Limits, But Addressed

Although Bulova made it clear that discussion about the Fairfax County budget was off limits for the day, Mt. Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland early on pointed out the elephant in the room.

“We may not talk about this today, but we need to talk about it sometime: The Board of Supervisors and the School Board working together at times has become confrontational and antagonist,” he said.

County Executive Tony Griffin will present his FY 2013 budget on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

“You’re three-quarters of our budget," Hyland told the school board. “Requests for more money than we have available for transfer instantly creates conflict between our two boards. What is the sufficient amount to transfer will always be a conflict. What’s the process for handling that? We need to discuss how to manage that conflict,” he said.

“We represent the same people,” said Hyland. “The same people lobby you who lobby us, and if they feel they can’t get it from you they come to get it from us,” he said. “We have the same constituents. This retreat is a good starting look at a process to reduce angst, conflict and bad feelings," he said.

School board member Elizabeth Schultz asked for an ovation for Hyland.

"The goals of the school board and schools cannot be at crosshairs with the Board of Supervisors," said Schultz, the Springfield District's school board representative. "I look forward to the weaving together, with maybe some sifting, of our goals," she told the Board of Supervisors. "But ours are not exclusive of yours."

History of Collaboration

Braddock District Supervisor John Cook agreed. "When the School Board thinks of only the school system and the Board of Supervisors thinks about everything except the school system, that creates discord," he said. "We should each take a little more responsibility without stepping-on-toes, or we set ourselves up for inevitable conflict."

"Our staffs are working together greater than ever before," said Chairman Bulova.  Sometimes things have gotten hot. … We need to find ways of clearing the air and improving communication. We're saving money working together vs. working separately," she said.

Members of both boards were surprised by the extent to which they already collaborate. Griffin reviewed a 22-page document citing examples of county/school cooperation, which included financial automated systems, risk management, purchasing, surplus/excess property, warehouse operations, employee wellness, printing services, after school programs, early childhood education, athletic fields, vehicles, and more. “Our children are our shared responsibility," he said.

Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay called for better communication. "The public just expects us to solve problems," he said. "They don’t expect to find out later that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. Lack of communication and miscommunication cause much of our conflict."

McKay gave the example of working with his constituents to have a cross-walk installed, only to learn after the project was finished the crossing guard for that street had been eliminated in the schools' budget. 

Schultz encouraged the group to forget the past, and press forward.  Citing a proverb, she said, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today." 

We have got to have the vision to develop a 25-year plan together,” she said. "For example, if we’re going to provide adult education a decade from now, what are we going to do now, without it going away?”  she said, .

"Our two boards need to deliver quality full-services to the entire population," said McKay. "The most successful thing we have going in Fairfax is the confidence of our taxpayers and our delivery of services. More than 70 percent of county residents don’t have kids in the school system. How are we together going to communicate to the public to effect their continued support."

Future Meetings Planned

At the end of the day, both boards agreed to future meetings. A steering committee with representatives from both boards will review the retreat notes, and report back to both boards with a recommended agenda for at least two joint meetings within the next year. The meetings will focus on specific projects for collaboration. Those most mentioned as possibilities included discipline and the Capital Improvement Program (CIP).

"We'll have meetings in coming weeks specific to the budget," said Bulova.  "Those meetings should be holistic about our respective budgets because there is so much that we can do together," she said. Specific projects that come up in those budget discussions will be referred to the joint meeting agendas.

The groups plan to invite county agencies to join some of the future collaborative sessions. Parks and libraries were particularly mentioned.

A third party will facilitate the topic-based meetings of the joint boards.

"There's a lot of creativity between our two boards," said Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity. "That's a great opportunity."

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