Clifton fears closing town’s only school means end of community’s identity

Renee C. Miller knew from the start that her first year as Clifton Elementary School’s principal would be her last. But that hasn’t made the school’s final days, or the fierce emotional battles over the Fairfax County School Board’s decision to close it, any less challenging. When the board voted last summer to close the small, award-winning school because of shrinking enrollment and tight budgets, Miller had been on the job a week. She knew that running a beloved school while preparing to close it would be a tough assignment for anyone, let alone a rookie. She decided she would treat the school’s closing as if it were a death of a close friend because, for many in this rural patch of Fairfax, that’s what it is.

“They needed to know that I was somebody who would take care of the children,” Miller said.

Clifton will close June 21, and the decision has stirred such rancor that parents have asked the Virginia Supreme Court to step in. It has also become a rallying cry in coming School Board elections among those who think board members decided to close the school well before consulting with the public.

But even those who think the decision was for the best also acknowledge that closing Clifton has eroded the social bedrock of one of the few rural areas left in Northern Virginia’s most populous suburb. While much of Fairfax has filled up with townhouses and malls, and Tysons Corner is becoming more urbanized, Clifton has kept a touch of country because of conservation laws that protected its open space but now threaten its ability to support a school.

The town’s Main Street seems timeless, with a general store, a popular ice cream stand, antiques shops and plenty of charm. But, without a modern community center or public pool, Clifton’s social life has centered around the elementary school.

“Everybody here is devastated, because the school was the hub. It was the one thing that brought everybody together,” said Tom Peterson, 57, who owns Peterson’s Ice Cream Depot and served as the town’s mayor from 2006 until last year. “Taking Clifton Elementary away destroys the cohesiveness of this community. I don’t think the people in this area will know each other anymore.”

Clifton, which built its first schoolhouse in 1871, has had a school on the hilltop overlooking the town since 1912. But it might as well be on Main Street, because the school, whose current building opened in 1953, has been the only public institution to draw people together from across a sprawling geographic area that takes in about a tenth of the county. Clifton’s fate can be traced to a government decision almost three decades ago.

To protect the Occoquan River watershed, the Board of Supervisors voted in July 1982 to require that new houses be built on at least five acres of land, preserving the countryside. The school became the center of activity for the far-flung community, and the devotion showed.

Few schools in the Washington region have as high a percentage of Girl Scouts, said Lisa M. Ide, a Scout leader and parent at the school. With parents’ help, students mounted “Operation Sandwich,” assembling hundreds of sandwiches a week for a homeless shelter. For another project, “Kitchens in a Box,” the school gathered toasters, dish towels and other items for another homeless program. Even in summer, parents and children visited the school to tend to the courtyard’s learning gardens.

The school’s former principal, Arthur Polton, said he had never seen anything like it — and he worked at 20 schools before arriving at Clifton in 2005.

“The amount of volunteerism and the quality of volunteerism was phenomenal,” said Polton, 58, of Vienna, who retired last year.

It is that same dedication that has also propelled some parents to fight the School Board in court. One lawsuit, filed by Jill DeMello Hill and pending in Fairfax County Circuit Court, says that school officials violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding e-mails and other information related to the decision to close the school.

Another lawsuit, representing 21 Clifton parents, says that the board’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and therefore should be set aside because its stated reasons for closing the school — bad well water, dwindling population and the relative cost of renovations — were factually inaccurate.

“If everything had been in the public eye, would they still have voted to close Clifton Elementary? I don’t think there’s anybody who could say yes,” said Elizabeth Schultz, whose opposition to the closing has driven her to run for the School Board.

But the School Board’s legal papers say the July 8 decision was rational, well considered and based on fact, including estimates that school renovations would cost $35,287 per pupil, compared with $24,740 elsewhere in the county.

Elizabeth T. Bradsher, the School Board member who represents Clifton’s district, Springfield, said she agonized over her vote to close the school but agreed with an analysis showing that the county could not support a small elementary school in a no-growth area while facing a $1.6 billion school renovation backlog throughout the district.

“I would really love for people to understand the difficulty of that decision,” Bradsher said Wednesday. But she said the animosity and obscenity-laden hate mail directed at her have been so over the top that she is not comfortable walking down Clifton’s Main Street. She has not decided whether to run again.

In December, Fairfax County Circuit Court’s chief judge, Dennis J. Smith, upheld the School Board’s decision, saying it followed rational consideration and due public notice. This week, the Clifton parents’ attorney, Benjamin G. Chew, presented oral arguments before a three-judge panel about why Virginia’s highest court should hear the appeal. A decision could come in a few weeks or a few months.

From the beginning of the school year, almost everyone at Clifton has been preparing for its end. Teachers began attending workshops on how to punch up a resume and interview for a job. The PTA, racing to empty its bank accounts before year ends, showered money like never before on souped-up field trips and heartfelt gifts for teachers. A 23-member Closing of Clifton Elementary School Task Force was formed.

But while so much attention has focused on the finale, Miller also focused on the present, and on staying positive. She bought a bird costume for Cliff the Cardinal, the school’s mascot. The newsletter, which had circulated on paper once a month, became a bulletin distributed by e-mail once a week. Picnics, field trips and other welcoming events were arranged for Clifton families at the three elementary schools — Union Mill, Oak View and Fairview — that will receive their children in the fall.

Yet, for all the upbeat diversions, the school year has been shot through by bittersweet emotion. One by one, traditions enacted every year — the first-graders’ annual drama, “How Does Your Garden Grow,” the PTA’s Fun Fair, the Volunteer Tea — have become bittersweet memorials-in-the-making. Looking forward to the fifth-graders’ Medieval Day next month now means, inevitably, looking back. The June 20 Promotion Ceremony will become the last Promotion Ceremony, and the last day of school, June 21, will really be the last day of school.

On a visit to Clifton Elementary, a reporter was not permitted to interview students.

“It’s just been extremely emotional,” said Kathy Owens, a science teacher tending to an incubator hours after a few chicks had just emerged into the world. “One of the joys of teaching is, the kids who come back the following year and share with you how they’re doing, and all of us are losing that memory.”

Assistant Principal Ellen G. Colter, recalling the Volunteer Tea with about 35 parents, said she thought she had to keep her remarks to a minimum after seeing so many moist eyes, lest she begin to cry, too.

“I’m not sure the hardest moment has come yet. The moment those last nine buses pull away for the last time, that’s going to be the hardest moment,” Colter said.

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