Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Board member punished for trying to do the right thing in Fairfax school dispute

Voters like to say they want politicians who’ll do what’s best for the common good rather than pander to special interests just to get elected.

Don’t tell it to Fairfax School Board member Liz Bradsher. She stood up for principle by supporting a controversial school closing only to be punished with a barrage of public insults and obscenities.

Anonymous postings on a widely read Web site falsely said that she had a drinking problem and that her husband was divorcing her.

Bradsher’s enemies have been cheering her decision not to run for reelection this year. Some ought to look in a mirror and cringe instead. Their nastiness in this conflict was a good example of what’s polluting our political culture.

The two-year dispute pit the county school system against the charming, country community of Clifton in southwestern Fairfax over whether to close a high-achieving elementary school rather than pay to renovate it.

Bradsher’s district includes Clifton, so normally she’d be expected to fight to keep the facility open. Instead, after studying the costs and enrollment forecasts, she concluded that it made more sense for the county to spend scarce renovation dollars elsewhere.

A majority of the School Board agreed a year ago. The courts upheld the decision. Clifton closed for good Tuesday as a public school. Unless the building reopens as a charter, Clifton’s kids will be divided among three other county public schools in the fall.

Closing a school always wrenches the heart. That’s especially true in this case, because the school has been Clifton’s most important community institution for decades.

Nevertheless, we all ask the government to save money whenever possible. So we shouldn’t explode in self-righteous fury when our elected representatives try to deliver.

“Every day I wake up with some kind of mean e-mail that’s been sent to me,” Bradsher said, her voice cracking with emotion. “To get letters sent home anonymously threatening you and demeaning you, so your kids see it, that’s pretty hard.”

Perhaps the low point came in an e-mail sent in April from Erin Tengesdal, a local cafe owner and graduate of the elementary school. I can’t quote the most objectionable line describing Bradsher, because of its horribly offensive language. Here is a tamer passage:

“I’m surprised your husband hasn’t left you yet and your children show their faces in school,” Tengesdal wrote.

She signed it, “Liz Bradsher Hater.”

I phoned Tengesdal and asked what she thought justified such invective. “I’m just a constituent who felt I’d been wronged and who voiced that dissatisfaction with my right under freedom of speech,” she said.

Dean Tistadt, the school system’s chief operating officer, said that such quarrels have always been passionate but that the level of civility has worsened. He’s been researching the history of Fairfax schools in the past 50 years and said the Clifton debate was “the most personally vitriolic” of any dispute in that period.

“I think maybe just times have changed,” Tistadt said, possibly because so much communication takes place in anonymous forums on the Internet.

Indeed, comments about Bradsher are particularly venomous on the Web site Fairfax Underground, where writers don’t have to identify themselves. “You are a LIAR. You are a DECEIVER. You are TOAST,” a June 13 posting said.

Bradsher is perplexed that most of the Fairfax Republican Party establishment has turned against her after supporting her when she ran in 2007. “That’s what surprises me so much. Here I was endorsed by the Republican Party, one of whose platforms is prudent fiscal responsibility,” she said.

The county says that the net, one-time savings by closing Clifton is about $9 million, in addition to an annual savings of about $1 million in operating costs.

The school’s defenders dismiss the savings as a myth and accuse the school system of distorting the facts because it was determined to shut Clifton.

It’s true the Fairfax schools are often too ready to dismiss public opinion. However, it’s hard to imagine why the staff and School Board would be so mistaken about the Clifton costs.

One Republican who has stuck by Bradsher is Del. Dave Albo of Fairfax. He said she lost support because she refused to be a typical politician. Voters claim that’s what they want — but not if their interests suffer.

“What a normal politician would do is tell all her friends: ‘I’m going to make a big stink about this, but outvote me. It won’t hurt my feelings,’ ” Albo said. “But she’s not a regular politician. She went out there and gave them tough love.”

The county will be worse off that the public sent packing an official guided by the civic good rather than electoral convenience.

 
Read what others are saying