Q&A with Fairfax County School Board candidate Mateo Dunne
Update: Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck clarified to On the MoVe April 30 that he is not endorsing any particular candidate for the Mount Vernon District seat on the Fairfax County School Board. His name has been removed from a list of endorsers below.
Mateo “Matt” Dunne is a Democratic candidate for Mount Vernon District representative on the Fairfax County School Board. He is seeking to fill the seat of retiring board member Karen Corbett Sanders. Dunne, an attorney for a nonprofit venture capital firm, lives in Fort Hunt with his wife and three kids, two of whom attend West Potomac High School (WPHS). Over the years, he has been a highly engaged school parent and education activist, leading or co-leading efforts for Fairfax FLAGS (Foreign Language Advocacy for Grade Schools), Friends of FCPS, the Fairfax County Council PTA, school bond campaigns and WPHS' recent renovation. Dunne recently answered some questions about his campaign for On the MoVe.
Q. What prompted you to run for School Board?
A. Running for political office was not on my bingo card for 2023. The pandemic hit me and my family hard, so I was focused on my career and my kids. When I heard about Karen Corbett Sanders’ retirement, I felt called to serve because for 10 years, I have been advocating for fully funding FCPS, increased pay for teachers and increased resources for students. I believe in serving the community and leaving it better than I found it. I am honored and humbled to have received endorsements from local leaders whom I have admired for a long time, such as State Senator Scott Surovell, Delegate Paul Krizek and Karen Corbett Sanders.
Q. What will be some of your priorities, if elected?
A. FCPS is facing unprecedented challenges: an achievement gap, learning loss, mental health crises and a shortage of qualified teachers. We’ve got to get the system back on track, so every child receives a world-class education. We need to benchmark FCPS against the best public school systems in the world, so we can restore excellence and again become the gold standard for public education. We need universal pre-K. We need to increase the number of teachers to reduce class sizes and ensure every child gets individualized attention. We need to protect kids, teachers and staff from drugs and violence. I’m frustrated that FCPS hasn’t taken a more proactive approach to solving this. We need to upgrade our athletic fields, classrooms and schools to ensure they are world-class facilities. Funding for that can come from public/private partnerships like the one used to build South County High School (SCHS). We need to empower teachers to educate our children rather than teach to the test. Finally, I would like to commission an independent study to establish one or more magnet schools in or near the Mount Vernon District. “Excellent Schools Every Day in Every Way” is my campaign slogan.
Q. How will you work to ensure a more level playing field among local high schools?
A. Each of the three high schools in the Mount Vernon District has its own unique challenges. Mount Vernon High School (MVHS) has faced a number of challenges. What gets lost is the fact that MVHS is an exceptional high school. In a recent year, MVHS had a higher number of students go to West Point than any other high school in the country. One of the problems is that FCPS is a system; if MVHS were a private school, it would have a glossy brochure, but because it is part of a system, it gets lost in the shuffle. Until the recent capacity enhancement was completed, WPHS had troubles with overcrowding. Similarly, the Lorton community had to fight just to get SCHS built. We need to continue to advocate to ensure we get the respect, resources and funding we deserve for all the schools in the Mount Vernon District. I plan to spend most of my time at all three high school pyramids instead of at Gatehouse Administration Center.
Q. Absenteeism has been a chronic problem at certain schools. What can be done on that front?
A. FCPS has a real problem with absenteeism. I am dissatisfied with the level of attention FCPS has devoted to this issue. If we’re going to educate children, we need them to be in school. FCPS should hire more truancy officers. FCPS also needs to hold parents accountable for attendance. In the pandemic era, there was too much laxity; everyone got a passing grade, and to me that was unacceptable. There was a lowering of academic standards, which is inconsistent with the direction I’d like to take our schools. It’s important to set high expectations and standards. If students have problems, we should give them the support and resources they need to succeed — not dumb down the standards. That doesn’t work in a 21st century economy.
Q. How can FCPS improve communications with community members during serious in-school incidents?
A. West Potomac’s principal is an excellent example of how a principal should communicate in a clear and timely manner. Anytime there’s a problem, she promptly emails everyone; that helps build trust between the community and FCPS. I think it is incumbent upon the principals of each school to act in the same way — to provide timely communications to the community, subject to any limitations imposed by privacy laws. Historically, what I have found is that FCPS has not been as transparent or accountable to the public or the School Board as it should be. It can take weeks for the School Board to get answers to basic questions. I won’t tolerate that. We aren’t here to protect the system; we’re here to serve the community.
Q. What are your thoughts on FCPS’ budget and spending?
A. I oppose raising property taxes for at least two years because I believe FCPS has more than sufficient funding for providing a world-class education for kids, upgrading facilities and ensuring there are enough teachers. I see lots of opportunities to enhance the efficiency of FCPS operations. Every dollar saved is a dollar that could be spent on hiring the best and brightest to serve as teachers. Sometimes FCPS acts as if it needs to reinvent the wheel, but we should take a different approach. FCPS needs to take the best practices and lessons learned from the best public school systems in the world and bring them here and put them into practice.
Q. I understand you changed your name last year. Tell me more about that.
A. For me, families are made by love, not by blood. When I was born, I was named after my father. When I was 18, he died of cancer. His death destroyed me, but I was healed by the love of my wife and her family. Her parents, German (pronounced Herman) and Grecia, who came from Cuba in the 1960s with only a 4th grade education, love me as their son, and I have loved them as my parents for 25 years. During the pandemic, I decided to honor the people I call Mami and Papi by changing my name to Mateo Oramas Reyes Dunne. They call me Mateo. Oramas is Mami's maiden name, and Reyes is Papi's last name. They are my family, and I love them with all my heart.