On School Board Service: Stu Gibson
Long-standing board member says county needs to re-envision community engagement
Stu Gibson's first election season in 1995 was a far cry from the race for Fairfax County School Board seats this November.
The board had just become an elected body, transitioning to one where members serve four-year elected terms instead serving in appointed seats for two years at a time. Some candidates wanted to teach creationism in biology class. Some thought the county should spend much less money on the schools. Some wanted to use the seat as a stepping stone to a higher office, Gibson said.
"It was very partisan," Gibson said. "[To me] it didn't matter if the idea comes from a person with a D next to their name or an R next to their name. … I didn't have an ideological agenda. I wanted to do what was best for the schools."
After 16 years — more than half of his 30-year marriage — Gibson will step down from the Hunter Mill District seat Dec. 31, taking with him an institutional knowledge and intelligence the board will miss, colleagues say.
Much of the board's early decisions were about organizational and legislative issues, Gibson said — though "[the board] fought about everything."
The first time he can remember true agreement was in January 1998, when it developed 10 strategic targets to guide their decisions, among them, that every child should be reading at or above grade level by second grade, reducing the number of trailers and serving children with special needs in their base school instead of at special education centers.
"I'll never forget it," Gibson said. "We adjourned early. … I was amazed."
The system also transitioned from being organized into three "areas," each responsible for a third of the county's schools, to the current cluster system, which spreads those schools over 12 superintendents.
"[It made us] a lot more responsive in terms of addressing teacher issues, parent issues, facilities issues," Gibson said.
The board revisited the strategic targets in 2004 and 2005, instead developing groups of priorities the board now uses to steer its policy and spending. They've used those priorities to shape their budget despite a continuing decrease in the amount of per pupil funding, and, loss of state and federal funding.
"This board this last four years, the last eight years, has demonstrated great foresight," Gibson said. "We still see student achievement continue to rise because in 2005 we made a decision, and the decision was the most important thing we can do is student achievement."
Gibson has served under three "world class" superintendents, and he said current superintendent Jack Dale has helped the system stay ahead of the curve on several issues, among them, extending teacher contracts to 11 to 12 months in an attempt to treat teaching more like a full-time job and encouraging more teacher collaboration.
"This paradigcm shift from one teacher, multiple students to one student, multiple teachers comes from this school system and this superintendent," Gibson said. "We're swimming upstream on this, we've been swimming upstream for quite a while but that's the future and that will be where the rest of the country gets. I'm proud to have been part of it at the beginning. "
In his time in office, Gibson said he has had some regrets. The biggest: "Some of the issues we deal with generate far more heat than light and consume a lot more emotional energy, intellectual energy, physical energy time and attention than they should."
Some of the arguments have gotten downright "nasty" and too personal, he said.
He's also encouraged the board to "get out of the boundary business" to the past 14 years, suggesting that instead of conducting the process at the board level, the board creates a permanent committee of citizens, similar to the recently-formed FCPS Facilities Planning Advisory Council.
Those citizens would commit for a term of a certain number of years, would not sit on hearings or decisions that involved them personally or financially. The committee would weigh options; conduct community outreach and present several options to the board. The board would still hold a public hearing and do outreach of its own, but because the options would come from the committee, members of the public would not be as likely to claim board member bias or personal motivations as they often do now, Gibson said.
He also said the board needs to change its view of community engagement. While Gibson has at times been accused of not being as open to public feedback as some other members, he said the board would be better served going out and having conversations where people are already having them, instead of expecting them to come to the school board.
"I think that people on our board have tended to view community engagement through a very straight-jacketed lens, and that is, we only have community engagement if we have roundtables and invite 10 to 12 people at a time per table or hold an education forum," Gibson said. The board needs to start going out to community centers, churches, schools and having conversations with those constituents — "it's not about the school board having conversations," he said.
He said it's been easy for the board to be swayed by "the usual suspects," who may not be representative of the views of the wider county.
"I can find you 100 people that are for or against anything in Fairfax County. That doesn't mean that's a representative view," Gibson said. "I'm not here to discount the very, very strongly committed groups of people who feel passionate about one issue or another but at the end of the day how representative is that group? And I would submit that we would be advised to cast a much wider net, to go where people are instead of inviting people to come to us."
He said he'll miss the committed, passionate community members, PTAs, teachers and principals in Reston, Vienna and Herndon. But just because he's stepping down from the board doesn't mean he's gone for good.
"I'll still be here," Gibson said. "I'm just not on the school board anymore