“For a program we were already debating the wisdom of being involved in, you hang a $7 million price tag around that, and it suddenly made it that much less attractive,” said Loudoun board member Bill Fox (Leesburg). “We are trying to figure out where that leaves us.”
Such conversations are in the earliest, most informal stages. Official discussions between the jurisdictions are just underway, and most administrators said it was premature to comment publicly. But the potential is there, should surrounding counties pull their students from TJ enrollment, for real change at the high school that is perhaps the most visible symbol of Fairfax County’s successful system.
The discussion speaks to the growing size, clout and aspirations of booming school systems such as Loudoun and Prince William. Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ, draws about a sixth of the school’s 1,800 students from outside Fairfax County, but some board members in other jurisdictions wonder whether sending their best students to Fairfax is worth their constituents’ tax dollars.
“We want to pursue a program that is equal in stature and depth to that of TJ, and we want to provide that in Loudoun,” said board member Jeff Morse (Dulles).
Others cautioned that they would not want to disrupt students already enrolled at the high school and that they are only in the initial stages of considering financial and other questions. Several board members in Loudoun and Prince William said they think there is strong support for at least exploring options for students closer to home.
“At this point I’m open to discussions about continuing to participate with Thomas Jefferson,” said Prince William board member Betty Covington (Potomac), who like others was expressing her opinion and not speaking for the board as a whole. “But I can definitely say I would not support allocating any funds to renovate or help build a high school in another county.”
It’s a wonderful school, Covington said, but so is the two-year governor’s school that Prince William now has. Yet TJ’s reputation for academic excellence stretches across the country.
“It’s a fantastic school with a great curriculum . . . one of the top exam schools in the country,” said Jeannine Lalonde, a senior assistant dean for admission at the University of Virginia. “It’s funny, when a new person sees the names of the courses there they’re always blown away — ‘What is this? Oh my gosh, these kids are doing artificial intelligence!’ Yes, that’s a course there.”