Fairfax Struggling With School Boundaries

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

John Halacy plans to go to Oakton High School tonight to voice his opposition to plans to reshuffle the high schools his daughters and hundreds of other students will attend in western Fairfax County. But he doesn't believe school officials will pay any attention to him.

"This was all decided many, many months ago," said the Herndon real estate appraiser. "They say they are open to everything, yet clearly they are not."

Last summer, Halacy and other parents banded together to urge county officials to stop developing proposals to channel more students into underenrolled South Lakes High. His daughters, in fourth and seventh grades, would go to South Lakes instead of Westfield High under one plan. More than 2,500 people have signed a redistricting moratorium petition on the group's Web site, http://StopRD.org.

Administrators are pressing forward, gingerly, with studies that have drawn thousands of people to two town hall meetings since early November. Officials say that no scenario has been ruled out and that they are tuned in to what Superintendent Jack D. Dale called the "don't do it lobby."

"But," Dale said, "part of the process is to identify a solution other than that. . . . The School Board always has an option at the very end to not make any changes at all."

Redistricting is always contentious, but it's a fact of life in areas where new schools are on the horizon. Rearranging student populations without adding campuses is a harder sell. Families have a lot invested in high schools, which are community hubs. The result in western Fairfax has been more organized resistance to redistricting than most school officials can remember.

In a third and final town hall meeting tonight, school officials are seeking comment on a new boundary scenario. It would not affect current high school students, but it would shift the destination high schools for about 900 students over four years. Some who are headed to Oakton High, Westfield High and Madison High would go to South Lakes High; others would attend Oakton High instead of Chantilly High. Herndon High boundaries would not change.

Web sites and e-mail chains, organized under such names as Save Oakton and Save Floris, have emerged to challenge redistricting. The School Board launched the process in July mainly to fill seats at South Lakes High, which has 1,443 students on a campus built for 2,100, and ease crowding at Westfield High and Chantilly High. Enrollment at Westfield and Chantilly, with 3,171 and 2,838 students, respectively, exceeds design capacity.

Critics ask why redistricting is needed when recent projections show enrollment declining in the crowded schools. They also ask why nearby Langley High and Madison High are not included in the study, even though they are pushing capacity.

In chat rooms and on editorial pages, parents have criticized the process the school system uses to gather comment on boundaries. They call it undemocratic and rigged. School officials say the strength of the opposition has strained community meetings needed to develop boundary proposals.

The process works well when a school is opening and there are lots of "happy people," said Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for school facilities and transportation. "There's more loving than hating" at those meetings, he said.

Not so with the anticipated reshuffling of students in western Fairfax. Many parents are reluctant to send their children to South Lakes, where test scores are lower than in neighboring schools and a third of students qualify for subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

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