Fairfax County School Board votes to close Clifton Elementary

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

The Fairfax School Board voted Thursday night to shut down Clifton Elementary School, following months of intense resistance from residents seeking to save the town's only school and a community centerpiece.

Board members cited the outsize cost of renovating one of the county's smallest public schools, particularly during an economic downturn.

"In the end . . . we have one of the largest school systems in the nation and too few dollars," School Board member Elizabeth Bradsher (Springfield) told an auditorium full of frustrated Clifton parents clad in cardinal red, the school's color.

The soonest Clifton Elementary will close is after the coming school year, after the county reviews boundaries and enrollments in surrounding schools. Children could be sent to those schools, or the School Board might opt to build one nearby.

Clifton Elementary has stellar test results but a faded brick facade. It is not attached to a public water supply, and its wells have tested positive for contaminants.

Officials said the cost of upgrading the 58-year-old building on the hilly 14-acre property would be about $11 million, roughly the same as building a larger school elsewhere. At the same time, they project Clifton's enrollment to dip below 300 by 2015, down from 369 this year.

Parents in the tiny picturesque town and its pastoral environs said the school is an integral part of their community and a crucial gathering place for families. In an emotional rally and at a hearing, many said they would rather make do with a pared-down renovation than have no school at all.

Some Clifton neighbors are seeking a historic designation for the 1950s-era building, which would make it eligible for federal and state grants to offset rehabilitation costs. A few agencies, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote letters to the School Board to support restoring the neighborhood school.

"We need to stop taking a number 2 pencil and erasing Virginia history," said Elizabeth Schultz, a Clifton Elementary parent who emphasized that it would be the first time in more than a century the town would be without a school. "There is a lot of historical significance that needs to be honored," she said.

The attendance area for the school is among the largest in the county, spanning about 40 square miles. Zoning laws forbid high-density construction and make room for horses and luxury homes.

School Board member Martina A. Hone (At Large) proposed delaying a decision on the school's fate until 2013, when a countywide review of school renovation priorities is scheduled. She said Clifton Elementary's unique relationship to its community deserves consideration, and she echoed many parents' questions about the reliability of the school system's enrollment forecasts and renovation cost projections.

"I have enough discomfort with this data . . . that I cannot in good conscience vote to kill a school," she said.

The board voted this year to close Pimmit Hills Alternative High School to save money, and it unanimously decided in 2008 to close Graham Road Elementary, another school known for its academic performance but saddled with a substandard facility. The children there will move to a larger school nearby once its renovations are complete.

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