Q&A with Fairfax County School Board candidate Stori Zimmerman
Stori Zimmerman is a retired military spouse, a mother of two whose youngest child will attend West Potomac High School in the fall, a licensed realtor for Keller Williams, an educator and coach, and a candidate for the Mount Vernon District seat on the Fairfax County School Board. As part of a military family, Zimmerman frequently moved over the years, but her family ultimately opted to settle in Northern Virginia upon retirement from active duty. Over the past decades, Zimmerman has taught at every grade level, including college, worked in the health and wellness field, and volunteered extensively in the community. Her candidacy for the school board was endorsed April 19 by the Fairfax GOP. She recently answered some questions about her campaign for On the MoVe.
Q. What prompted you to run for School Board?
A. My husband and I have talked about this over the years. However, being an active-duty military family meant we never got the opportunity to grow roots in any one place. When we moved to Virginia, our youngest child was going to be entering the fourth grade at her fourth school. We decided that this would be a good time and place to “pop the chute” and retire from active-duty service. This finally gave us the chance to lay down roots and become active, present members in our community. With our current Mount Vernon representative not seeking reelection, I felt it was my civic duty to throw my hat in the ring and run for school board.
As an educator, coach and mentor, I have been involved in the betterment of our children for most of my life. I believe that ALL children deserve a world-class education that ensures they all reach their full potential. I am certain that Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has the capacity to provide a world-class education to all students, but the top priority must be to focus on the most important part of our educational system — students. Over the past decade, even with a budget that has increased almost 65%, student performance continues to decline, highly qualified teachers and staff continue to leave our schools, and our children do not feel safe in their classrooms. This is why I am running — we MUST do better; our CHILDREN are counting on us.
Q. What will be some of your priorities, if elected?
A. LEARNING is my top priority and should be everyone else’s as well. We MUST get back to learning in our schools. I want to make certain that FCPS reprioritizes its focus on the foundational academic skills necessary to ensure our students have a strong basis for learning throughout the rest of their lives. The current FCPS modified grading system lowers standards and expectations, destroying hope. Without standards, no one advances. We need to return to a grading system where the standards of academic excellence are valued through expectations that lift the floor, not lower it. We cannot continue to accept a system that is satisfied with educational mediocrity turning out low-functioning adults who end up costing society significantly in the long run. Aside from the sad fact that many students miss out on attaining a level of literacy that will allow them to live independent and fulfilling lives, taxpayers are paying for their mediocre schooling and then paying the price when students drop out or graduate without the adequate skills necessary to go on to college or obtain a job that requires specialized skills. The goal of our educational institutions should be to turn out high-functioning, critical thinkers who view learning as a life-long process and are responsible constituents of society.
The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the “nation’s report card,” reports that nationally, only 33% of fourth graders are reading at or above a proficient level, and in Virginia that number is 32%. If we turn that number around, that means almost 70% of students entering fourth grade are NOT reading at grade level. We know that students who cannot read on grade level by third grade are, on average, three times more likely to have behavioral issues, discipline issues, attendance issues and drop out of school altogether. The consequences for the individual and the costs to the nation are staggering in terms of lost wages and earnings over a lifetime. Lost wage estimates for dropouts, who typically have low literacy skills, are close to $535 billion a year. Loss of interest in learning and school by third grade is directly tied to low literacy rates. We need to focus our efforts on collaboration with the Virginia Department of Education in support of the Virginia Literacy Act, which was passed in the 2022 General Assembly, by adopting a research-based, vetted literacy curriculum that will ensure ALL students are literate and reading on grade level by the time they leave elementary school. Identifying students who are reading below grade level before third grade can help mitigate learning loss and redirect resources to help these students get back on track, so they are reading on grade level before leaving elementary school. We must also ensure that students who receive English Language Learning or Special Education services are provided with all the tools and support they need to perform as well as everyone else.
Q. What can be done to ensure every student matters?
A. Simply put, returning the focus to EVERY student. EVERY is an easy term to define and is easily quantifiable at its simplest form — meaning ALL students. No need wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, as our current School Board has done, trying to define a term like "equity." Simply put, we put the focus back on EVERY student, that EVERY student will have the opportunity and access to the foundational academic skills necessary for them to attain academic success inside and outside of the classroom.
Q. What type of decisions should parents have a right to be involved with in the school system?
A. Any and all decisions that concern the upbringing, education and care of their children. This shouldn’t even be an issue as our public school system should be embracing parental involvement on all levels with open arms. Parents should be viewed as a necessary and fundamental part of the educational success of each and every student. The parents and the school system should be a team, working cooperatively to ensure the best education for our kids.
Q. What are your thoughts on FCPS’ budget and spending?
A. As I mentioned earlier, the FCPS budget has ballooned by almost 65% over the past decade. These huge infusions of cash have not correlated to improved educational outcomes. What is happening in our schools is not because of a lack of money; it is an issue of priorities. FCPS is an over-bloated bureaucracy that has become more focused on sustaining itself than focusing on the most important piece of our educational system — students.
Some immediate changes would be to stop baseline budgeting and go to a line-item budget requiring each line to be justified every year. Implement an annual audit of the budget which analyzes the budget versus expenses, with unexpended funds reallocated to non-recurring items. We also need to determine the exact percentage of money being spent directly in the classrooms versus administration, and stop hiding administrative costs by claiming classroom support. With this key data in hand, more funds can be moved directly to the classroom while reducing bloated administrative costs and personnel. Lastly, to be the best, we need to recruit and retain the best; therefore, continuing advocacy in support of top pay and benefits for our educators, bus drivers and support staff will remain a priority.
Q. How can FCPS improve safety at local schools?
A. Continue to allocate funds to update, upgrade, retrofit and enhance security measures throughout our physical buildings and facilities and digital infrastructure. We also need to enhance FCPS relations with the Fairfax County Police Department and place more resource officers in all our schools. The proposed 2024 budget only allocates $400,000 to school security officer positions which pales in comparison to other “initiatives“ that FCPS has proposed to support. For example, FCPS is proposing to allocate $3.2 million in support of its Get2Green climate initiative. I would propose that the safety of our students and teachers should hold a much greater priority than these initiatives. It is also important to point out that the current School Board and administration has spent almost $500,000 hiring a PR firm out of Berkeley, California to help define and market the placing of the term “equity” throughout the 2023 Strategic Plan. No amount of money is going to keep highly qualified teachers and staff in our schools if they do not feel safe. Therefore, learning cannot take place in environments where students and teachers do not feel safe. Furthermore, school administrators and teachers need to be supported in the conduct of discipline at their schools. School discipline should address schoolwide, classroom, and individual student needs through broad prevention, targeted intervention and development of self-discipline.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. As a family of service, I have volunteered countless hours and dedicated my life to helping others. I’ve never witnessed a time in which there was a greater need for strong, experienced and thoughtful leadership to ensure the successful futures of our children and nation. Our American public school system was once the envy of the world. With hard work, involvement and dedication, it can be that way once again, with FCPS leading the way. From students to parents to staff to school board, we must all strive to uphold the highest standards and be responsible for our actions. This is not a right, left or in-between issue. The success of our children and our nation is an EVERYBODY issue.
Zimmerman and the other two candidates for Mount Vernon Representative to the Fairfax County School Board, Mateo Dunne and Harold Sims Jr., will take part in an April 25 candidate forum organized by the New Gum Springs Civic Association.