Fairfax County parents push to renovate, not demolish, Clifton Elementary

By Holly Hobbs
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, June 24, 2010

The battle over whether to raze or renovate Clifton Elementary School will come to a head this summer.

A public hearing on what to do with the small school is Monday, with extra time set aside for Tuesday if necessary. The Fairfax County School Board is scheduled to vote on the school's future during its regular meeting July 8.

Clifton Elementary is home to about 370 students, making it one of the smallest elementary schools in the county. It is smaller than other elementary schools in its cluster, which have 551 to 856 students.

The school, built in 1953, relies on two wells that have had sporadic quality problems since the mid-1990s. The wells have tested positive for bacteria, manganese, lead, copper, uranium and arsenic, according to county staff. Students often are asked to take bottled water for drinking.

Fixing the water problems could cost $302,400, according to school system officials. The school has never been renovated.

Parents of students at the school say it is integral to life in Clifton.

"The school is the thing that truly connects the community," said Clifton council member-elect Dwayne Nitz, who takes office in July. He attended Clifton Elementary as a child; his son will begin kindergarten there next year.

Clifton Elementary is part of a larger Southwestern Regional Planning Study for the county, which looks at school crowding issues and possible boundary line adjustments in the area. A panel of community members, mostly from PTAs and PTOs, conducted the study.

The report estimates that enrollment at Clifton likely will decrease from 370 students to about 350 by 2015, while the number of students at neighboring schools will continue to rise.

"It's not time to move on from these reports," Dean Tistadt, the school system's chief operating officer, said during a School Board meeting June 10 in which he updated the board on the proposed plans for southwestern Fairfax schools.

Although administrative staff members recommend closing Clifton and building another school three miles away at the Liberty Middle School site, "we never said we could not renovate Clifton," he said.

Renovation costs vary based on the extent of improvements, according to the study, which was released this spring. Estimates range from $8.1 million to $11.3 million if construction begins in 2012. A new school serving about 975 students could be built at twice the size, 102,902 square feet, for $18.7 million.

After the question of the school's future is resolved, boundary decisions involving adjacent schools likely will fall into place, Tistadt said.

"As a parent, I just want any health and safety issues fixed," said Connie Milliken, who has a first-grader at Clifton Elementary. "I like Clifton Elementary. It's a well-performing school."

For information, including the studies on Clifton and the southwestern region, visit http://www.fcps.edu/news/swcountyschls.htm.

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