Fairfax principals are headed back to the school board on Monday to renew their request for permission to install surveillance cameras inside schools.
This time, they’re armed with support from the majority of high school PTAs. The outgoing school board will have to decide: Take a sure-to-be-controversial vote? Or leave it to the next school board to decide?
“I think they should go ahead and vote on it now,” said principal Abe Jeffers of Lee High School, who has been leading the effort to change the camera policy.
Jeffers said principals of the county’s schools sought parent reaction and input by polling their PTAs. But two alternative schools — Mountain View and Bryant — have no parent groups.
Of PTAs at the remaining 25 schools, 17 supported changing the rules to allow cameras, Jeffers said. Two PTAs — at Langley and Annandale — opposed a change.
Six others were either split or chose to take no position: Fairfax, Hayfield, Thomas Jefferson, Stuart, Woodson and McLean.
“I think the great silent majority like so many other things have been supportive of this,” Jeffers said. “This is a non-issue that people want to make an issue.”
Retiring board member Tina Hone raised questions about the school system’s method of gathering parent reactions, arguing that parents are put in a difficult position when asked for their opinions by a principal who is clearly advocating for a certain result.
“We should be giving objective info and asking for objective input,” she said, “and I don’t think that’s what we’ve been doing. I think we’ve been steering the conversation to the outcome that we want.”
Fairfax has long rejected cameras out of fear that such a measure would invade students’ privacy and lend an unwanted Big-Brotherish feel to the county’s high school campuses.
But then came last spring and its rash of food fights, which sparked big, loud, whirling messes. Kids were knocked to the ground and hit with flying water bottles. Teachers were hurt. Ambulances, in some cases, were called. And culprits were not caught.
Frustrated principals first floated the surveillance-camera plan in a presentation before the school board in September. Cameras would not just help catch wrong-doers, they said, but would make for safer schools all around.
Board members — several of whom were locked in tight reelection contests at the time, and were no doubt mindful of the need to tread carefully around hot-button issues — said they needed to hear from the community before making a decision.
Cameras came up frequently during the race for school board, and many candidates expressed reservations about whether they were worth the expense when budgets are so tight.
School officials estimated in September that camera deployment would cost $120,000 per school, or about $3 million for all county high schools.
But in documents provided to the school board, the principals now estimate that installing cameras in cafeterias and selected “hotspots” would cost a maximum of $885,000.
Principals have said the could pay for the cameras with non-instructional funds, such as proceeds from vending machines.
At Monday’s 3:30 p.m. work session, board members will have an opportunity to put cameras on the agenda for consideration and a vote — or to put the issue off until 2012, after the new board is installed.
“That next board may say ‘Whoa Nellie, no cameras!’” said Hone. “I think the right thing to do is to wait.”