March 22, 2005

Dear President O'Neill and Members of the Board of Education:

           On Thursday, March 17, 2005, the MCCPTA Executive Board convened a special meeting at which we reviewed and discussed draft Policy FAA. With seventeen (17) of our clusters represented by their individual cluster coordinators, along with MCCPTA committee chairs and Area Vice Presidents, we engaged in a deliberate and probing discussion and reached a unanimous conclusion: we are alarmed by the proposed policy changes and concerned about the restrictive timeframe for comment. The proposed revisions to Policy FAA represent a wholesale elimination of the due process protections which have safeguarded meaningful public involvement in MCPS facilities decision making. Our concerns are deeply felt and universally shared. Accordingly, we, the MCCPTA Executive Board, write with a strongly unified voice and a firm resolve, to urge that you reconsider your proposed action on Policy FAA.

Our reasons for this request are numerous and are rooted in the very history of this policy. When Policy FAA was first adopted in 1986, the Board of Education, Montgomery County Public Schools and the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, made a concerted effort to protect the involvement of stakeholders in the present and future processes of planning and funding the county's most expensive and crucial business. MCCPTAs' Long Range Planning Committee was at the drafting table. The Board of Education held three public hearings at different sites around the county, ensuring the public's substantial and continuing role in the decision-making process.

Those hearings were packed with PTAs, civic associations and others concerned about our schools. The result was a unique public document investing parents and other interested community members with a critical role in shaping the development of our school communities.  The policy set a standard for parent involvement which other counties held up as a model. The current policy is clear, predictable, and understandable and has served the community, the schools, and the Board of Education well. Indeed, the current CIP process, combined with the advocacy of PTA, motivates more citizen participation than almost any other aspect of school management.

We believe the proposed action on Policy FAA will irrevocably damage a core purpose for which Policy FAA was developed. It removes the underpinnings of cooperation and inclusion that previous boards embraced. It does so without allowing for the broad based public participation which factored so significantly in the policy's creation.

To be specific, the draft Policy FAA eliminates all reference to parents, students, PTAs, and civic associations as critical stakeholders in the design of school facilities, rendering them superfluous. The wording of draft Policy FAA streamlines the preferred range of enrollment for schools, out of written existence. The appropriate student-to-classroom ratios for capacity calculations and facility utilizations, the need for public hearings on facility decisions and the right to appeal to the State Board of Education - are all made invisible in this policy.

We are not moved by assurances that our concerns will be addressed in a regulation in whose promulgation or future amendment we may not participate.  As parents and citizens we have no right and no guarantee of the opportunity to be heard before regulations are promulgated. Moreover, we have no opportunity to comment when regulations are amended. This is the profound difference between policy and regulation. Guidelines for parent participation set forth in regulation may be changed without our input. Similarly, relegation of such critical substantive issues as capacity calculations and facility utilizations to regulation takes them outside the requirement of public comment.  Proposed regulation FAA-RA, as outlined, anticipates significant increases in the preferred range of enrollment for all school levels and yet we as MCCPTA may never have the opportunity to express our concerns about this crucial topic because there is no guaranteed opportunity for public input on MCPS regulations. Simply put, the loss of our guaranteed participation in the process is unacceptable to MCCPTA. We as MCCPTA feel that it is our responsibility to diligently protect these guarantees.

The proposed transfer of procedural guidance from Board of Education policy to regulation strips away critical safeguards and their public illumination through notice, comment, testimony and decision-making in open meetings. Although we recognize that boards of education are being encouraged to distinguish between overarching policy considerations and details which belong in regulation, this policy represents a unique blend of both public policy and framework for public participation. Policy FAA differs from other policies precisely because it governs how the Board receives input from its constituency with respect to educational facilities.  Defining this critical relationship should not be cast off to regulation outside the Board's purview.  While we understand the theory of public policy that separates regulation from statements of intent, we urge you make an exception with Policy FAA in favor of a more evolved tradition in Montgomery County which demonstrates the Board of Education's commitment to public participation and to their own role in decision-making.

The draft Policy FAA cannot protect the existing process for PTA input or guarantee that the status quo will continue because the transfer of procedural authority from policy to regulations removes all assurance. Though the draft policy asserts that it is designed to "encourage community members to identify and communicate their priorities and concerns to the Superintendent and the Board", by failing to enumerate the procedures that will ensure this becomes a reality, the policy rings hollow. Irrespective of today's good intentions to continue to encourage public involvement, it is undeniable that a regulatory scheme comes with no guarantee that robust public involvement will be preserved.  This is not merely a change in process as much as it is an elimination of due process.

We believe this proposed change injures our ability to seek recourse or remedy from our elected board. The transfer of authority from policy to regulation removes due process protection for our schools, our parents, our communities and our children. The proposed revision will dissolve openness in decision making that the original policy established, and undermine the ability of the board to exercise its statutory oversight role.

The implications for parents, PTAs and other community members are enormous. If you as our elected officials minimize the value you place upon public and MCCPTA input by failing to protect it in policy, then our voices as citizens will be reduced.  If you, as our elected officials, diminish our opportunity to participate by abdicating your role, you minimize the right of parents to participate through their PTAs. Parents will feel increasingly powerless rather than being empowered to express their views.  At a time when the schools have to defend their budgets and their roles in the community, it is a mistake to diminish the ability of citizens to be advocates for education.

We urge you to reevaluate the purpose served by undermining this critical policy that forms the bedrock of the collaborative decision making process in our communities. We recognize that changes must be made in the policy to address processes not now addressed by current Policy FAA, such as consortiums and student choice assignment plans. However, these changes do not require the diminution of the existing procedural protections by their transfer into regulations.  The policy can be revised without forfeiting the protections it affords.  Respect the history and the success of this policy and undertake a process that brings stakeholders to the table to discuss any necessary revisions.  Much like the advisory committee process adopted for reviewing the special education policy and the family and community based partnerships policy, we urge you to allow the community a voice at the outset. We ask you appoint a similar advisory committee to review Policy FAA.  In addition, we ask that you hold public hearings on the proposed revision.

And, finally, we urge you not to rush. The current timeline to revise the policy is arbitrary. The existing policy was painstakingly crafted over many months, with numerous public hearings and opportunities for public comment. It is not necessary to hastily implement any policy revision, let alone one so profound, without ample deliberation and collaboration with the community.  To that end, we strongly urge that the Board defer formal consideration of any changes to Policy FAA until the fall of 2005. This would allow all stakeholders adequate time to consider the need for changes and alternative approaches and for public hearings and testimony to occur.  It would also ensure that no changes are made to this critical document while parents are away for the summer, or preparing for graduation or back-to-school. As always, MCCPTA stands ready to participate in a process that can lead to the development of a revised policy which serves the interests of all students by maintaining the Board's oversight authority and preserving the valued participation of parents, teachers and students.

                                                           Respectfully submitted,

                                                           Cindy Kerr, President

Behalf of the MCCPTA Executive Board