Clifton, Va., residents put up a fight to save aging elementary school

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Contaminated water wells at a tiny elementary school in southwestern Fairfax County are prompting school officials to consider closing the 58-year-old institution. But students and parents are lobbying heavily to keep Clifton Elementary open, arguing that it is a cultural landmark and relying on a mix of grass-roots organizing and political savvy.

Fairfax school officials are debating whether to close Clifton because it needs an estimated $11 million in renovations. Three water wells are located on the school's property, but bottled drinking water is delivered every day, school officials said. One well is contaminated with radium, and another has water-quality issues that include positive tests in recent years for copper and lead. The third well does not provide enough water to supply the 350-student school, officials said.

Clifton, which opened in 1952, is the only Fairfax County school that is not connected to a public water system, and it is also one of the region's smallest schools, with a capacity of 374 students. By 2015, enrollment is expected to drop to less than 300, said Dean Tistadt, the school system's facilities director.

"When we looked at the renovation costs and the decreasing enrollment, it begged the question, 'Does it make sense to keep this school open?' " Tistadt said.

Fairfax is considering constructing a school near Liberty Middle School, about three miles away on Union Mill Road and opposite St. Andrews Church. A final decision by the Fairfax County School Board is expected July 8.

Parents said a few small renovations, including the construction of a two-story addition and a bigger parking lot, could increase enrollment to 550 students. Opponents of a closing also have questioned the $302,400 cost estimate for correcting problems with the on-site wells.

"There are ways to do this cheaper, and, at the end of the day, the school is out-performing other county schools and providing a great education for our kids," said Patti Hopkins, president of Clifton's PTA.

School closure and boundary changes are usually emotionally charged affairs for students, parents and teachers, and few Fairfax schools have closed in the past two decades, partially because of the county's rapid growth. The last county-operated schools to close were two Fairfax City elementary schools, Green Acres and Westmore, which were shuttered at the end of the 1999-2000 school year as part of a consolidation plan.

Clifton, with a population of 200, combines a small-town, Norman Rockwell-esque way of life with an unusually affluent and active collection of taxpayers. Clifton parents have organized a strong lobbying group, Clifton RED, to oppose a school closing. The group holds boisterous rallies in downtown Clifton and has created a flashy Web site with a slick promotional video.

"My great-grandmother was the very first principal at Clifton more than 100 years ago," said Kirk Wiles, 27, who runs a new winery on a centuries-old family farm. "I was hoping my kids would attend Clifton and live here. Clifton is a historical community. It's not like the rest of Fairfax County, and it shouldn't fall victim to the same traditional thinking."

The village has strict zoning laws because of its proximity to the protected Occoquan Watershed. There are no townhouses or apartments within the boundaries of the Clifton school district, and the median house price is nearly $830,000. Most of the homes have private water wells.

"We all drink Clifton well water, and not all of us have green hair," said Lisa Graine, 44, of Clifton.

On Monday, about three dozen current and former Clifton students spoke at a School Board meeting, with many of the younger students reading from prepared, often polished, statements and wearing red T-shirts.

"I'm kind of shy, so I would hate to be separated from my friends. . . . Clifton might not be fancy, but it is a great school. If you vote to keep it open, I would be most grateful," said Bobbie Patton, 6, who will be a first-grader in the fall.

But Fairfax is in tight budget times and a complete renovation would be too costly and unfeasible given Clifton's hilly terrain, said School Board member Elizabeth T. Bradsher (Springfield), whose district includes Clifton.

Replacing the school has been promoted as more cost-effective than renovating it. Demolition of the existing building would cost about $1 million. A new school at nearby Liberty would cost at least $10.9 million. Students would likely be scattered among different schools in the district.

Clifton is not the only county school facing closure. Graham Road Elementary, a high-achieving Falls Church area school with one of the most diverse student populations in the district, was in the spotlight in January after President Obama unveiled his $1.3 billion Race to the Top education initiative there. He called the school "one of Virginia's finest," but it has been slated for closure for years because of its small size. Students there will begin relocating to a larger school about a mile away in fall of 2012.

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