By Tim Craig and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, are holding a campaign rally at Fairfax High School tomorrow morning in violation of a school system policy, prompting some teachers and community leaders to question district officials.
According to the Fairfax County policy, which addresses how the community can use school facilities, "School buildings and grounds may not be used for campaign activities during school hours."
Superintendent Jack D. Dale said he made an exception to the policy because he thought it would be a good learning experience for students. "We are not participating in a political rally," he said. "We are letting our kids have new educational opportunities." He alerted the School Board about the event yesterday during a meeting at the school administration building.
McCain campaign officials said they negotiated openly with school and Fairfax City officials and the local leaders suggested the high school. Fairfax City owns the high school building but contracts with the county to operate it.
Dale said he made the same policy exception for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Obama held a town hall meeting at Robinson Secondary School in July, with about 2,000 participants. School was not in session, but an arts program and some other activities were being held in other parts of the school, Dale said. The policy does not address summer school activities.
Still, some Obama supporters and community members are crying foul.
Several teachers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear retribution, raised concerns about the political event.
"This is in the middle of a school day. The entire school day is going to be disrupted, and this gives an indication of support for his candidacy. That bothers me," one Fairfax County school teacher said.
School spokesman Paul Regnier said that the school day would not change for most students. But seniors, who study government, would have the option to attend the rally. Most attendees will be McCain and Palin supporters, who can obtain tickets through the local Republican committees or the McCain campaign.
Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax), who served on the Fairfax County School Board from 1991 to 2000, said she was shocked that school officials authorized the event.
"This is almost unprecedented, to have a rally in a school building in the middle of the school day with kids present," Amundson said.
Amundson said that for years, Fairfax school officials have resisted calls to hold political events while students are in class.
She wants the rally canceled or moved, noting that an e-mail advertising the rally asks people who show up to "please wear something red to remind everyone to keep Virginia red this November."
Fairfax City Mayor Robert F. Lederer, a Republican who helped plan the event, defended the rally, noting Obama's appearance at Robinson.
"This is something that I see has broad support for its educational component," Lederer said. "The Obama people did it this summer. I think the precedent was probably set during that period, whether it was a good decision or not."
Dale said any security or other costs are paid for by the campaigns.
Lederer said residents should be proud that McCain (R-Ariz.) and Palin chose to have their rally in Fairfax City. "It would be disappointing to me if this becomes a partisan, bickering affair where, if you are for one, you are for the rally, and if you are for the other, you are against it."
Principal Scott Brabrand sent out a message through the school's e-mail system yesterday to alert parents about the rally.
Fairfax High School parent and Obama supporter Pearl Johnson, whose daughter is a student at Fairfax High, said she had mixed feelings when she learned about the event. She thought it would have some educational value. "But it did come to mind, if they are doing a McCain and Sarah event during the school day, are they going to do the other side? What message are you sending?"
Staff writer Michael D. Shear, traveling with the McCain campaign, contributed to this report.