FCPS Charges Students Fee to Access Education

7.21.20: Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced:

Today, the Fairfax County School Board supported my revised recommendation that we begin the 2020-21 school year with virtual learning for all students. The online school year will begin, as scheduled, September 8.

In making this decision, FCPS changed the education point of access from school buildings to computers.

8.5.20: FCPS parents started receiving emails stating there is a maintenance fee for the computers being provided via the FCPSOn program.

A Child’s Right to a Free Public Education:

Section 15 of the Virginia Constitution’s Bill of Rights states:

That free government rests, as does all progress, upon the broadest possible diffusion of knowledge, and that the Commonwealth should avail itself of those talents which nature has sown so liberally among its people by assuring the opportunity for their fullest development by an effective system of education throughout the Commonwealth.

Article VIII, Section 1, of the Virginia Constitution states:

The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.

By charging students to access their education, FCPS is removing “free†from “free public elementary and secondary schools for all childrenâ€.

FCPSOn Background:

FCPSOn launched in FCPS high schools at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. The program provided laptops to every highschooler in the system.

The FCPS FY 2020 Program Budget states:

One area of focus of the office is FCPSOn which increases equitable access to technology and to instructional practices that lead to personalized, meaningful learning for all students. (Page 20)

FCPSOn will ensure that FCPS students have access to an active and inspiring learning environment in which they can become effective communicators, strong collaborators, ethical and global citizens, creative and critical thinkers, and goal-directed and resilient individuals. (Page 371)

The FCPS FY 2020 Approved Budget states:

The FCPS Strategic Plan goals to provide “One electronic device per student†and to “Create systemic strategies and standards for technology use by teachers and students to improve student engagement and learning†led to the creation of FCPSOn – an instructional transformation leveraging one device for every student. (Page 277)

Based on Virginia’s constitution, it is not a student’s responsibility to pay for meaningful education or an active and inspiring learning environment, or to pay for technology to improve student engagement and learning.

And yet, FCPS announced a $50 fee with the launch of the program, and called the fee a “maintenance feeâ€. However, the FCPS FY 2020 Approved Budget indicates otherwise. In the budget, the fee is called a “technology fee†in one section and a “user fee†in another, and is listed as revenue:

The implementation of this technology fee is projected to generate $2.2 million in revenue to support the initiative. (Page 50)

The financial model for FCPSOn takes an approach of sustainable funding that includes shared cost between schools and central offices as well as student user fees. (Page 64)

A new technology support fee of $50 per student per year will be charged to students in grades 9 through 12 for the FCPSOn one-to-one device initiative which expanded to all high schools divisionwide. The implementation of this technology fee is projected to generate $2.2 million in revenue. (Page 71)

Tuition, Fees, and Other Revenue is projected to total $26.5 million for FY 2020, an increase of $2.5 million, or 10.5 percent, over the FY 2019 Approved and Revised Budgets. The net increase is primarily due to a new technology fee of $50 per student per year that will be charged to students in 9 through 12 for the FCPSOn one-to-one device initiative which expanded in high schools divisionwide. Students eligible for reduced meals will pay a reduced technology fee of $25 per student, with no fees for students eligible for free meals. The implementation of this technology fee is projected to generate $2.2 million in revenue to support the initiative. (Page 173)

The FCPS FY 2020 Approved Budget states, too, that the model chosen for FCPSOn is more expensive in the long-run:

Our school computer inventory continues to grow steadily and is also seeing significant impact from market changes. Manufacturers are moving to shorter product life-cycles. While manufacturers maintain sufficient replacement parts to complete in-warranty repairs, timelines to obtain parts is increasing. In addition, once a model is discontinued by a manufacturer and the device warranty expires, replacement parts are quickly unavailable and 3rd party re-sellers must be used. Repairs are becoming increasingly problematic and we are faced with the decision to either remove a device from a school, or to complete repairs that may exceed the value of the machine. FCPSOn necessitates moving from largely business-class devices to more streamlined devices appropriate to student needs, which will have shorter lifespans. Therefore, while the initial cost of devices is less, overall costs are likely to increase in the long-term due to maintaining a larger inventory with shorter lifespans. In addition, some secondary curriculums require higher-end devices in order to maintain curricular equity even within a 1:1 environment. Current funding for computer replacement and maintenance is limited and the expansion of FCPSOn requires substantial resources to maintain an inventory of approximately 200,000 computers.

The FCPS FY 2020 Program budget indicates that funds previously allocated for textbooks were redirected to help fund FCPSOn:

Operating expenses total $22.4 million, an increase of $5.4 million, or 31.9 percent, primarily due to the adoption of language arts instructional resources for high school in FY 2020. This increase is offset by a decrease in funding provided in FY 2019 for the adoption of mathematics instructional resources and the redirecting of 25 percent of the textbook per-pupil funding to support the FCPSOn initiative at all high schools.

To my knowledge, no charge was levied on students for textbooks in the past, with the exception of replacing damaged or missing textbooks.

While there is an opt-out option, FCPS’ site states:

A personally owned laptop must have a keyboard and be compatible with Google Apps for Education and Microsoft Office and must be compatible with the school Wi-Fi. . . . FCPS instructional applications are not licensed for installation on personally owned laptops.

This puts students who opt out at a disadvantage because they won’t have access to the same programming as their peers.

And yet, a student could buy his or her own laptop with the money spent on paying $50 a year for a laptop. As of this writing, it has been confirmed that middle and high schoolers are being charged, which puts the cost at $300 by the time they graduate. For less than $300 they can buy a Chromebook or other laptop that would be sufficient for their needs, and would still be theirs upon graduation—and would likely still work upon graduation. If elementary school students are being charged, the long-term fee will be even higher. If elementary school students aren’t being charged, the question would be, Why charge two groups of students, but not the third? Education is supposed to feature equity.

Additional FCPSOn Issues:

This isn’t the first time FCPSOn fees have been an issue.

For years, students in the special education program have received computers, iPads, and other devices, to help address their unique needs.

Section 300.105 of IDEA states:

(a) Each public agency must ensure that assistive technology devices or assistive technology services, or both, as those terms are defined in §§300.5 and 300.6, respectively, are made available to a child with a disability if required as a part of the child’s—(1) Special education under §300.39;(2) Related services under §300.34; or(3) Supplementary aids and services under §§300.42 and 300.114(a)(2)(ii).(b) On a case-by-case basis, the use of school-purchased assistive technology devices in a child’s home or in other settings is required if the child’s IEP Team determines that the child needs access to those devices in order to receive FAPE.

Section 300.39 (b) of IDEA states:

(1) At no cost means that all specially-designed instruction is provided without charge, but does not preclude incidental fees that are normally charged to nondisabled students or their parents as a part of the regular education program

One could argue that this means that, since FCPS is charging all students a maintenance fee, then students in the special education community can be charged, too.

This is not the case.

Deciding to charge special education students, just because you decided to start providing computers to all high school students doesn’t pass the smell test. In addition, because there are student in elementary school and middle school who receive devices, and who weren’t being charged via FCPSOn (which was only launched in full in high schools), an issue of equity is created. Schools can’t charge one set of students in the special education program and not charge another set of students.

And yet . . . FCPS took a long time and over $30,000 to come to that realization.

11.4.19: I received a $50 charge for FCPSOn. I contacted the school and asked why I was all of a sudden being charged a fee for a special education service my child had been receiving for years.

11.25.19: the principal of the school responded:

I received feedback from the Department of Special Services and the districts Finance Office concerning the assessment of the $50.00 fee for participation in FCPSOn.  Below is what was shared with me:

“FCPS would not waive the FCPSOn fee.  If the parent chooses to not have the student participate in FCPSOn and have access to his own laptop while in school, the school should have a laptop/word processing device available to the student for all classes.  This laptop would not go home with the student.  We would recommend keeping the laptop in the sped office for easy access when student needs it.â€

Although the school is mandated under federal and state law to implement IEPs in full, if I didn’t pay the $50, this statement indicates a change in the IEP services, with the computer no longer available for home use.

I emailed Superintendent Scott Brabrand.

11.26.19: Jane Strong, director of FCPS’ Office of Special Education Procedural Support called me and said:

In looking at the emails and the situation going on with the FCPSon and the fee, we absolutely agree that students who have it in their IEP can not be charged that fee. . . . We’re going to take steps to rectify that problem that occurred.

11.27.19: I emailed a number of individuals, asking why it took “a parent to make FCPS aware of the noncompliance.”

Scott Brabrand responded:

You brought a matter to my attention on Monday and we resolved it a day later. Working together we can resolve concerns.

Not quite. If you look at the timeline, I made FCPS aware of the issue weeks previously. And, if you look at what happened in the months to follow, the issue had not been resolved a day later.

11.29.19: FCPS again sent me a bill for FCPSOn. Great example of the right hand not talking to the left—and that, even though the superintendent said the issue was resolved, it wasn’t.

12.19.19: I received another bill for FCPSOn.

1.21.20: I connected with a parent who had not received a refund, even though, almost two months earlier, Scott Brabrand said everything had been resolved.

1.30.20: FCPS Board Member Abrar Omeish emailed me:

The fee was just mentioned in the proposed budget presentation as an oversight.

An entire population of students was ignored when the budget was developed. How does that happen?

1.31.20: In response to a FOIA request, FCPS FOIA Officer Brandynn Reaves emailed me:

After FCPS identified who was eligible for FCPSOn fee waivers based on IEP/504 accommodations and Assistive Technology services,  it was determined that 1510 families would have their fee waived.  The 682 families who paid the fee will be reimbursed.  Any reimbursements due to families will be completed in the shortest timeframe possible.  FCPS waived the remaining 828 families’ fees.

Multiply the 682 families who paid by $50 and you get $34,100.

That’s a lot of money to charge. And the “shortest timeframe” proved to be months after Scott Brabrand said the issue had been resolved. Refund notifications were still going out in February.

2.10.20: In response to a FOIA request, I obtained an 11.21.19 email from Theresa Johnson, Assistant Superintendent, Department of Special Services, indicating that 1) she was the one who provided the messaging to the principal and 2) that this messaging had been decided from a “legal standpoint”.

2.10.20: FCPS Board Member Karen Corbett-Sanders spoke at a PTA meeting I attended. During the meeting, she spoke about FCPSOn. She saw me in the audience and thanked me for identifying the charging “glitch”. I corrected her, as it was not a glitch, and FCPS itself had already advised me that it wasn’t a “glitch”—and I had received an email earlier that very day indicating it wasn’t a “glitch”, but a decision made from a legal standpoint. Then there’s the fact that I had already been advised that it was an oversight.

Additional FOIA requests uncovered more delays in resolving the issue:

11.12.19: Esther Ko, FCPS’ auditor general, emailed FCPS Board Member Megan McLaughlin in response to Megan’s suggestion that we all meet. Esther stated:

Could we discuss briefly about this meeting? I have the opportunity to review the email chain, and noted Ms Oettinger has filed a new claim with VDOE. I’m wondering if we should consult with John Foster or outside counsel before meeting with the constituent. As a regular protocol for the matters referred to me from school board members, I provided a heads-up to Karen CS (SB chair) and will notify Karen KG (this year audit committee chair).

12.5.19: Barb Gibbs, Executive Administrative Assistant to Ryan McElveen and Karen Keys-Gamarra forwarded my emails to Karen, with the following message:

I just texted you about this proposed phone meeting between you, KCS and Esther on Tuesday, December 10th from 8:30-9:00 am. The details surrounding the case are below. Please advise if you are available for this meeting ASAP. Thanks!

12.5.19: Esther Ko emailed Karen Corbett Sander and Karen Keys-Gamarra:

Regarding this parent compliant, I have some thoughts that OAG could support re: the review of process/control surrounding the FCPSOn fee triggering and billing.

Not only did FCPS not consider the entire special education population when it rolled out FCPSOn, it had no system in place regarding the triggering of who should/shouldn’t be billed—and when the issue was brought to its attention, the superintendent advised it had been resolved, but internal emails indicate that it was still being discussed and trying to be addressed.

To date, I’ve not received a response to my question about how FCPS will avoid such an “oversight” in the future.

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