Fairfax School Board Should Focus on Schools, Not Environmental Policy

Fairfax County Environmental, er, School Board

by Emilio Jaksetic

Not content with running the county’s public school system, the Fairfax County School Board now is involved with developing strategies and recommendations for county environmental policy. The results can be seen in the Final Report of the Oct. 1, 2020, Fairfax County Joint Environmental Task Force (JET).

In April 2019, the JET was established “to identify areas of collaboration between Fairfax County Government and [Fairfax County Public Schools] to further county efforts in energy efficiency and environmental sustainability, developing implementation strategies. and making recommendations to the [Board of Supervisors and School Board].” During the period April 2019-October 2020, five members of the board served as members of JET’s Executive Committee.

The JET was tasked to “provide a forum for informing, advising, collaborating and addressing Countywide issues and aligning institutional policies and practices pertaining to climate change and environmental sustainability through the lens of One Fairfax and to appointing bodies.”

The JET was directed to “communicate to the Board of Supervisors and School Board on a regular basis. Items identified by the JET, Superintendent or County Executive that require modifications to budget, policy, or capital improvement planning will be referred to respective Boards for consideration.”

With respect to land use, the JET was instructed “to prioritize co-locating resources, usage densities, types and intensities of development, and green space planning and preservation. Plans will incorporate walking, biking and multi-modal trails, employing green energy opportunities and carbon capture. Comprehensive Plan decisions, which more effectively partner and plan for ‘smart growth’ and align with nearby, right-sized public facilities, will be key JET goals essential for reducing misaligned facility needs and transportation costs. The JET will recommend measures for assessing improvements and best practices for land use.”

With respect to transportation, JET was responsible for “developing recommendations for decreasing per person carbon emissions per mile traveled.”

Furthermore, “Impacts of climate change to public health will be considered in our joint roles of protecting and improving quality of life in our community. The JET will work to identify needs, seek and grow available public health resources, and advance use of modern health care technology.”

The Final Report does discuss some matters that directly affect, or relate to, the operation of the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). On those matters, it is understandable that the School Board would be consulted. However, the Final Report also discusses matters unrelated to schools:

  • Countywide issues.
  • Land use decisions.
  • Types and intensities of development.
  • Walking, biking and multi-modal trails.
  • Comprehensive Plan decisions.
  • Best practices for land use.
  • Decreasing per person carbon emissions per mile traveled.
  • Identifying public health needs.
  • Growing available public health resources.
  • Advancing use of modern health-care technology.

The Final Report states the JET’s mission “is to join the political and administrative capabilities of the County and the school system to proactively and equitably address climate change and environmental sustainability” (emphasis added).

Does that mean the JET was expected to develop or use FCPS resources for political purposes? I question how many parents of FCPS students or Fairfax County taxpayers expect or want the School Board to use the public school system to develop or use unspecified “political capabilities” rather than focus on its educational duties and responsibilities.

The School Board’s involvement with JET on matters unrelated to its educational responsibilities raises the question of how was it authorized to do so.

Virginia Code Section 22.1-71 identifies the powers and duties of school boards: A school board “is vested with all the powers and charged with all the duties, obligations, and responsibilities imposed upon school boards by law . . . . School board members . . . shall have no organization or duties except such as may be assigned to them by the school board as a whole.” (Emphasis added) Where in Title 22.1 of the Virginia Code is the School Board given non-school duties and responsibilities like those identified in the JET Final Report?

The people of Fairfax County should ponder the following questions:

Why should School Board members work on non-school duties instead of devoting their full time and attention to school matters? Is the School Board interested in bureaucratic empire building? Are School Board members so bored with their educational responsibilities that they are looking to engage in other, more interesting activities?

What impact on the Fairfax County school budget was there when School Board members (and presumably their staff assistants) spent their time and office resources working on non-school matters covered by the JET? Why should any part of the school budget be used — directly or indirectly — for non-school matters?

Finally, are there any other instances where the School Board has been “moonlighting” on non-school activities?

Emilio Jaksetic, a retired lawyer, is a Republican in Fairfax County.