One in a series of interviews with departing Fairfax County School Board members.
Serving on the Fairfax County School Board was in many ways a chance to marry Brad Center's two greatest passions: education and politics.
His father was a vice principal in Philadelphia, his cousin and uncle were teachers. And when he pursued degrees in college, politics and education became his focus.
"If I was going to run for a political office, this is what I wanted to be involved in, not just running for a political office to be in a political office but to do something I really care about," Center said.
Getting on the board would take more than one try: Center first ran for the Lee District Seat in 1999, but was defeated by incumbent Chris Braunlich. Center got another chance in 2003. He won that election and another one in 2007; he will have served the board for eight years when he steps down Dec. 31.
In those eight years, Center says he's proud of much of what's happened both in his district and across the county. Edison High School renovations will be complete in December 2012, one of many school renovations Center worked to move forward through the CIP. He also helped implement the Priority Schools Initiative, a program that in May 2010 selected 30 county schools — several of which are in Center's district — as recipients of more support to meet their student achievement goals.
The board marked $4.3 million of its fiscal 2011 budget to the program, which divides the 30 schools into two levels. Fifteen percent of that money is used for the University of Virginia (UVA) School Turnaround Specialist Program (STSP). The rest of the money is used for programs tailored to a school's specific needs, from extended teacher contracts, to professional learning programs, to greater Headstart preschool classes.
He also said the board "really got right" student achievement goals, along with the system's mission and belief statements. The board has gotten better in recent years in tying those goals to specific budget items, though the practice is far from perfect yet, Center said.
Center pointed to the recent teacher raise as one of the budget items advanced based on a board priority, though it took longer than the board hoped it would — it first moved up teacher compensation as a priority two years ago.
"In this budget there are really only two major levers. You've got amount of staff you have and you've got how much you pay them, and sometimes you do one at the expense of another," Center said.
He said he hopes teacher compensation continues to be a priority as the county enters discussions about class sizes next year.
"A good teacher can teach 30, 33, 34 kids and teach them well. The teacher could teach that class better if it was 20, but he or she can teach that class. A bad teacher can't teach 10, can't teach 11, I don't care how small the class size is, if that teacher is not good it doesn't matter," Center said. "I'd err on paying them a little bit more and getting the best teachers so that I'm sure the kids are going to learn."
There have been times, more frequently in recent years, when the board has not reacted fast enough to public outcry or interest, Center said. It's an issue that didn't really exist when Center first started on the board eight years ago, he said — there weren't many blogs, as much instant communication or tweeting. When the board considered later start times for county schools a few years ago, those against the change created a blog and a website within days to pump out information, Center said.
"I don't think we as an organization — and I know we're not alone here — know, how do you adapt and respond correctly, accurately, effectively to these types of scenarios that blossom really quickly?" Center said. "I don't think we're nimble enough as an institution as a board and as a system yet. It's improved but it hasn't kept pace with the demand and the technology. I think there's got to be a better way."
He said the problem has compounded complaints from constituents that he or the board hasn't listened because they didn't vote the way the constituents or group had hoped despite their sometimes large-scale media and social media efforts.
"There's also people will say well you got 100 ... or 1,000 emails from us, you didn't listen. I did listen; I disagreed," Center said. "I believe you're elected to lead. I do not believe you're elected to follow, so as an elected representative you have the obligation to listen but at the end of the day they elected you to lead and vote."
Center said his tenure, while satisfying, "didn't fully scratch the itch" because "to some degree being on the school board was being a frustrated teacher … still sort of being involved but not being able to get all the way there."
After two terms, Center is leaving to finally scratch his teaching itch: Starting this spring or fall, he'll be teaching politics courses at 's Annandale Campus. He's also finishing a novel, an allegory about a family and the relationships within it.
And like a teacher, what he'll miss most are the students.
"We work with parents, community, business people, the superintendent, with all these different stakeholders, but ultimately we work for the children. … Those are the people we have to take care of."
This article has been updated.