TJ renovation cost raises questions from surrounding school systems asked to chip in

One question kept coming up between Loudoun and Prince William school board members at a recent statewide meeting: What are you guys going to do about TJ?

After hearing that neighboring school systems could be asked to contribute large sums for a $90 million renovation to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — the elite Fairfax County public magnet school — some school leaders in Loudoun and Prince William counties and Falls Church are questioning whether it still makes sense to export top students there.

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“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.”

The planned renovation would significantly expand the school and add new labs for neuroscience and oceanography. Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s proposal would have the other school jurisdictions paying pro-rated portions of the renovation costs based on how many of their students attend the school. Arlington, Prince William, Loudoun and Fauquier counties and the city of Falls Church would pay about $15 million of the $90 million total cost, or about $50,000 per student. Loudoun County alone would pay nearly $8 million.

Fairfax School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said that the other governor’s schools in Virginia include maintenance and construction costs in fees charged to outside jurisdictions. “I think in fairness to taxpayers in Fairfax County we need to ask for participating school boards to pay” their share, she said.

Chairman Ilryong Moon said the Fairfax board hopes other jurisdictions understand that fairness argument.

“I believe that all participating school districts know well the value of opportunities that TJ brings to their students,” Moon said.

Several board members in other counties said that the Fairfax decision blindsided them and that the costs appear out of proportion for a renovation.

“When we think of renovations, numbers like $90 million don’t make sense. . . . That was not something we thought was in the realm of possibilities,” Fox said. “We built a whole new high school for $90 million.”

Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington school administrators said through spokesmen that they are evaluating the proposal and that it was too early to comment.

Fauquier County Public Schools had already pulled its students out of the high school; they have a governor’s school of their own, and “it was an expense we just couldn’t justify,” said county School Board Chairman Donna Grove.

Toni Jones, the superintendent of Falls Church public schools, said that removing city students from the program would be a decision left for the board.

“We are very concerned,” Jones said. “In such tough budget times, spending money to build somebody else’s capital project is something we need to discuss with the school board. Especially when that would be taking money away from students we already have.”

Laura Fifer, whose daughter is a sophomore at TJ, said her family chose TJ over the Loudoun Academy of Science because of its advanced curriculum. “It would be pretty bad for my daughter” if the partnership were cut short suddenly, Fifer said. “The Academy of Science isn’t built up to TJ’s level right now. It would be a difficult transition for the kids already enrolled at TJ.”

Any change would have to be a community decision, said Loudoun board member Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin), who doesn’t support uprooting students enrolled there now. “With our growth and the growth that’s expected, we should be putting our dollars into a local resource if we can do it.. . . It has to be the will of the community because the community [would have to] fund it through tax dollars.”

 
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