School Boundary Proposal Provokes an Outcry

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Staring at the end of fifth grade, 11-year-old Drew Davis isn't much worried about how he would fare under the elementary school boundary changes proposed in Arlington County. It's the fate of the "little kids" that troubles him.

"If they had to go to a different school, it'd be horrible," Drew said. "I feel like these little kids should stay where they are. They shouldn't have to dig up their roots and leave."

Under a proposal by Superintendent Robert G. Smith, more than 650 students would be affected by boundary changes aimed at easing crowding. All but three of the county's 22 elementary schools would be affected.

After Smith gave his plan to the School Board on Thursday night, it quickly stirred emotions among parents across the district. Hundreds of community members showed up at Thursday's meeting, and 38 spoke. Officials said that about 160 more are expected to speak at public hearings Tuesday and Wednesday.

"It really is a crime what the superintendent is trying to do," said Alexi Bustillo, 36, who lives in the neighborhood around Ashlawn Elementary School, labeled Planning Unit 1303 in the proposal. "To call our neighborhood 1303 is an insult. It's not just a piece on the map. It's a neighborhood. It's not just a cell on a spreadsheet."

Bustillo was one of about 125 people -- parents and children -- who walked a half-mile to Ashlawn yesterday morning to protest the proposal, crunching across the snow and bearing signs with such messages as "Keep walkers walking." Under the plan, about half of the school's students would go to Carlin Springs Elementary, forcing children who once walked to school to take a bus on Route 50.

Smith acknowledged that his plan calls for difficult changes but said that some schools are too crowded and others are on their way.

"I've tried to make the point time and again, and I truly believe it. Whatever schools the students go to, they are going to get a top education," he said. "But anytime you make those changes, it's difficult. And I understand that and appreciate it. I sympathize with that."

Smith said that he expects the plan to change before the School Board votes on it but that he is not surprised by the vocal reaction.

"We're dealing with a very difficult problem, and in a way it's a great problem in that no one wants to leave their elementary school," he said.

Although each school would be affected in different ways, many residents are angry that the plan affects more people and schools than recommended by a task force that studied the issue last year.

The task force, composed of representatives from each elementary school, spent more than 300 hours on the issue before presenting several proposals to the superintendent in December. But, members said, Smith's plan did not reflect their recommendations.

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