McCain Rally Moves to Park As School Debate Continues

"I did not willfully break the policy," Superintendent Jack D. Dale said. Some parents and board members said Dale overstepped his authority. (By Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
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By Michael Alison Chandler and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Controversy over whether Fairfax High School should host a presidential campaign rally during school hours today eased somewhat after Republicans moved Sen. John McCain's event to a local park.

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale drew complaints yesterday from parents and School Board members for his handling of the issue. Some said Dale overstepped his authority when he gave initial approval for the rally at Fairfax High's field house.

Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), citing board policy, took steps early yesterday to organize an emergency meeting to overturn Dale's decision and have the rally canceled. That turned out to be moot when the campaign announced the venue change to Van Dyck Park on Old Lee Highway in Fairfax City, where McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will appear.

The campaign said in a statement that the rally had outgrown the field house, which can handle a crowd of about 6,500. The new location would accommodate twice as many people, the campaign said, "to ensure that everyone who wants to hear John McCain and Sarah Palin's message of reforming Washington will be able to do so." Buses will start shuttling people to the site from Fair City Mall at 7:45 a.m. for the 11 a.m. event. Republicans were unable to provide an estimate last evening of how many people were expected to attend.

The episode reflected the tensions that sometimes arise when the campaign trail intersects with public schools, which are supposed to be free from partisan bias. Teachers typically are not permitted to wear campaign buttons on campus, and teachers of government classes are expected to present all sides when discussing elections.

But some officials contend that hosting a campaign event on campus can give students a glimpse of the energy and mechanics of the political process and help teach civic engagement.

Dale said that was what he had in mind when he authorized the McCain event. In July, when summer school was not in session but some students were on campus, the county's Robinson Secondary School hosted a town hall meeting for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), now the Democratic presidential nominee. In February, Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County hosted a rally for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), then a presidential candidate, on an afternoon after school had ended, said Arlington schools spokesman Frank Bellavia. He said students were invited and given front-row seats.

Today, Obama will be greeted by teachers during school hours at Granby High School in Norfolk. The event is billed as a town hall meeting for select teachers and parents to discuss education reform. Although students are not included, the candidate will tour a classroom, said Michael Spencer, Norfolk schools chief operations officer.

Gibson said holding the McCain rally at Fairfax High would have violated board policy.

"We did not authorize the superintendent to waive a policy that says, 'School buildings and grounds may not be used for campaign activities during school hours,' " Gibson said. "The School Board can have a discussion about whether that is a good policy, but we have not had that discussion."

Dale said yesterday he was prepared to direct the McCain campaign to find a time for the event outside school hours. But the campaign had made other plans.

"I did not willfully break the policy," Dale said. "It may have been an unintended consequence of providing an opportunity for kids."

School Board Chairman Dan G. Storck (Mount Vernon) said the board will review the policy in coming months. He said he hopes schools can give students opportunities for hands-on, real-life experiences with campaigns but with clear instructional goals.

Diane Mortiere, second vice president of the Fairfax High School Parent Teacher Student Association, who supports McCain, said she was disappointed.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students," she said, "a great educational experience that is going to be missed."

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