Correction to This Article
This article about new attendance zones for Fairfax County high schools incorrectly quoted School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) as saying that race was the "800-pound gorilla in the room" throughout the discussions. Gibson was referring to socioeconomic class.

Controversial Ruling May Lead to New Scrutiny

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Even some of the Fairfax County School Board members who voted last week to redraw attendance zones for five western county high schools acknowledged that it was an imperfect plan born from an imperfect process.

Echoing critics of the plan, board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) said school boundaries ought to be reviewed countywide. Board member Brad Center (Lee) lamented that the plan shifted some students to a high school farther from their homes. "I would be remiss if I did not say the process needs work," he said.

Yet Niedzielski-Eichner and Center joined the 10 to 2 board majority Thursday night, approving -- over the objections of many parents -- a map that will switch future schools for thousands of Fairfax students. Board members said they were torn, but they cited a pressing need to balance enrollments and demographics among schools. Now the board, which in recent years has strived for consensus and collegiality, faces the challenge of cobbling together what might be an imperfect peace.

That could prove difficult. The months-long public debate over shifting more students to South Lakes High School in Reston included protests, threats of litigation and allegations of collusion, race-baiting and flip-flopping.

"This boundary study has not been our finest hour as a School Board," said board member Martina A. Hone (At Large), who opposed the plan. "There is an immediate need to restore faith within the community."

Numerous parents voiced solidarity with South Lakes High and supported the plan to move students to a school that has a higher percentage of disadvantaged students and lower test scores than its neighbors. But opponents of the board action emerged in force in recent months. They said 26 hours of public hearings and countless other formal and informal contacts with the board and school officials appeared to have no effect.

"We had a predetermined conclusion from the beginning of the study," said Scott Chronister, a Herndon area father. "They could have debated for one minute or 1,000 years, but the way it was laid out would not have changed."

The new boundaries will fill more than 600 empty seats at South Lakes High by drawing students from neighborhoods previously assigned to Westfield High School in Chantilly, and to Oakton and James Madison high schools in Vienna. The plan also shifts some students from the Chantilly High zone to Oakton High, farther from their neighborhood. No current high school students will be affected.

Opponents complained that certain communities in affluent areas were shielded from boundary changes. Several board members urged revisions to the boundary-drawing process and a review of boundaries countywide. But that might not assuage the anger of some people in affected communities. There are signs that outraged parents continue to mobilize. An organization formed by opponents of the boundary changes was planning additional meetings, spokesman Jay Frost said.

Opponents' strategy going forward remained unclear. Although many of them promised litigation, Frost said there are no firm legal plans.

One likely consequence of the boundary debate is that many residents will pay more attention to school matters in the future. They could raise their voices as the School Board grapples with its tightest budget of the decade.

The School Board has, "except in a few situations, operated under the radar," said Jody Bennett, whose home was switched out of the Madison High zone. "Now there are a few thousand people out there saying, 'I'm not going to sit back like that again.' "

Thursday's vote showed new fissures on the board. Two members elected in November -- Hone and James L. Raney (At Large) -- vigorously opposed the boundary plan.

During the debate, Hone said board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) and parents from South Lakes High had unfairly accused opponents of new boundaries of racism. (The Reston school has a higher proportion of minority students than the other four.) Hone said such tactics diverted the debate from key issues.

In an interview afterward, Gibson denied talking about race, but said class was the "800-pound gorilla in the room" throughout the discussions.

At the meeting, Gibson said, "We are here to represent the whole interest, not the people who send the most e-mails . . . or scream the loudest." The plan is "about making sure that all children we serve have the same access to the services we expect for all our children," he said.

Reshaped school communities also must bridge divisions. South Lakes High in coming years will have many new students whose parents protested the change. "I know it's not win-win for the people who don't want to come," said Elizabeth Vandenburg, president of the South Lakes High Parent-Teacher-Student Association. But she said she hopes families will be willing to give the school a try. "We feel like we have this incredible jewel to offer."

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