Six Questions With Tamara Derenak Kaufax
Tamara Derenak Kaufax is Lee District's school board member.
Tamara Derenak Kaufax, the Lee District's school board member for Fairfax County Public Schools, took office earlier this year after running unopposed for the seat. The following is an interview with Kaufax about her past, present and her hopes for the future.
Why did you decide to run for school board?
I'm a mom of two kids in Fairfax County Public Schools and I had been active and involved in their PTAs from the time they started school. I sat on a childcare advisory council for Supervisor Kauffman and I moved on when Supervisor McKay took over that position. I have a rising senior now in high school and my daughter is rising into 8th grade. The way they're spaced apart, I was in elementary school forever. During the tenure of one my PTA terms, I think I was the vice president, I met a good friend and it was with her encouragement to run.
How has your background in business prepared you for this role?
I was the assistant vice president of membership and marketing for a trade association, it was the Independent Insurance Agents. That dealt with marketing and communications, but most of the jobs I held were board-driven. I know how that works. The boards come in, the staff is there for many, many years and they sit through different tenures of boards. I always share with my colleagues on the school board that we have to be sensitive to that. I feel like that is giving me an advantage. I really feel that the board has to take the broad-perspective look at what's currently being done, and then work with professionals on the staff to make sure that goals are achieved. That's the way I want to work with the current school staff.
What do you think is your most important function as a school board member?
One of the things that I campaigned on is early school readiness. What I was hearing as a parent sitting in the PTA at the elementary school where my kids were is that some of these kids were going to school not literate in their own language. They did not know how to count in their own language; they did not recognize colors. Our strength is not as individuals; we can only collectively govern.
That one particular issue is one that I, in the past six months that I sat on the board, I've had a lot of success with. I partnered with a colleague of mine in another district, her name is Pat Hynes, and she was a big proponent of making sure that children come to school ready to learn and have the skills they need to be successful once they hit that Kindergarten classroom.
We're working with the county; we just got a working group started, it was just funded with the new budget. This money is to take a look at the systems that are in place and perhaps do a best practices study of other urban/surburban school districts and learn what they're doing to ease the readiness gap.
Are there any other projects that you or the board would like to work on?
I sat on the public engagement committee, and I've been asked to be the chair this year. One of my initiatives is to get information out. I envision a monthly newsletter from us.
I recently brought up to the board in a forum session parental involvement. The research shows that your child is going to be successful if you're an involved parent. This is sometimes a challenge in our system because we don't always see the parental involvement at the level where we would like it.
Our board is also looking at healthier food options for our kids within the schools.
What's your biggest challenge to achieving your goals?
Right now, I think a lot of us are struggling with a time issue. I'm not complaining, but this is a part-time job and I've been spending about 50 hours a week on it as many of my colleagues have as well. So many things are coming in at us at once. We're a big school system, we have a lot of successes, but we also have a lot of issues that need our attention. We're all a new board on that learning curve.
Another big issue coming up for us is our superintendent is leaving. In August, we are going to be looking at search firms to help us get the word out that Fairfax County is looking for a new superintendent and that process takes a long time. That's going to be new for some of us.
The challenge is of time, and we're 12 members of strong, divergent opinions. But we can only govern as a board; we have to come together and look at what our priorities are and work through those.
Why should people without children care about Fairfax County schools?
If our schools stay strong, our communities stay strong. We hear that the number one reason businesses come to this county is because of our very, very strong school system. In order for our county to stay vibrant, we need to continue to keep our school system strong. It's one of the best in the country.