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Fairfax County school redistricting plans draw protests from parents

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:33 PM

Fairfax County is considering its most sweeping redistricting plan in several years as it seeks to balance booming enrollment at many elementary schools and the expected closure of one, Clifton Elementary.

The Southwestern Boundary Study, which the School Board authorized in September, contemplates four approaches to rebalancing populations within a school district that is growing swiftly but unevenly, with the heaviest growth along the Route 29 corridor through the heart of the county. The boundary changes, depending on what version of the plan is approved, could affect students in as many as 23 elementary schools.

"Some schools continue to be overcrowded and others are well under capacity. Neither is a good environment for learning," said Denise James, director of facilities planning services for Fairfax public schools.

The most controversial element concerns Clifton, a school of 350 students in western Fairfax that is scheduled to close at the end of the school year. The school's population is shrinking, and district officials say the school needs costly renovations. But vigorous community opposition to the closure, including a lawsuit that parents have filed in Fairfax Circuit Court, has complicated the redistricting initiative.

As the lawsuit works its way through the courts, Fairfax school officials have asked parents to evaluate four redistricting options, all of which assume that Clifton will be closed by September. In all four options, students from Clifton would be split among Union Mill, Fairview and Sangster elementaries.

But school district officials say that Clifton isn't the only issue at play in this round of redistricting. With a number of elementary schools well over capacity, the district is charged with alleviating overcrowding without constructing schools - a mandate passed down by the School Board in response to financial and logistical concerns.

In late October, residents attended two meetings to comment on the preliminary options. Those options will be refined in the coming weeks, and parents will have another opportunity to voice their opinions on the study, this time electronically.

The School Board plans to vote on a redistricting option in February.

The first of the four options would redistribute students across the county's southwest swath.

The other three would redistribute some students while also building additions to several schools. Each building addition would cost about $5 million to $6 million.

All of the options would leave some elementary schools over capacity, although more schools than now would meet the district's goal of 95 to 105 percent utilization. The School Board is expected to introduce more options in the coming weeks.

"The issue is always how many students can I help with the limited funds that we have to spend," said Elizabeth Bradsher, a School Board member representing Springfield. "Renovating Clifton is an expensive commitment per student. There are more useful ways to spend this money."

Fulfilling the goal of using capacity efficiently without building elementary schools means that, even after redistricting, a number of the study's 23 schools will have more than 900 students by 2015, according to the district's projections. Seven to15 schools will be over capacity, depending on which existing redistricting option the School Board chooses.

Some parents, and especially those from Clifton, have complained that the process has not been sufficiently transparent. Some have filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get information that they say school officials are not sharing.

"Saying you are doing community engagement and people believing they are being heard are two different things," said Elizabeth Schultz, president of Friends of Community Schools, a group that formed to keep Clifton from being closed. "There haven't been enough people to answer questions at community engagement meetings. There's not enough data or information or time to give feedback. . . . We still don't know the transportation impact of the prospective changes."

Parents beyond Clifton also have questioned what impact, if any, the redistricting process will have on middle and high schools, or on facilities that get the additions.

"Many schools are going to be over capacity with large student populations even after boundary shifts. They need to go back to the drawing board," said Megan McLaughlin, chairman of the Fairfax Education Coalition, a parent advocacy group.

School officials said that they are doing the best they can with limited resources. And as the county grows, such redistricting efforts will remain routine and, they said, probably controversial.

"With the way the county is growing, and with our existing capacity as it is, there's just no way of avoiding them," James said.

seiff@washpost.com

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