The Fairfax County school board reluctantly agreed last week to transfer five surplus school sites, totaling 92.1 acres, to the county park authority for an amount based on original purchase price rather than current market value.
Meanwhile, board action on a proposed school closing policy, originally scheduled for last week's meeting, was deferred pending discussions with the county Board of Supervisors.
Both issues, the outgrowth of falling enrollments, have been the cause of minor tension and haggling between the two boards.
The surplus school sites were purchased over a period of years during rapid student growth in the county. They cost a total of $1,225,654. The purchases were financed largely through the sale of bonds on which $764,445 is still owed by the school board. By law, the school's bond obligations cannot be transferred.
In a letter to the county Board of Supervisors on April 7, the school board estimated the current market value of the sites at $1,749,660. Once the bond obligations were substracted from it, the board offered to release it for the remaining $985,215.
The Board of Supervisors objected. Some members said they felt there should be no reimbursement at all and that the school board should simply donate the land to the park authority. But law provides that the school board fund be compensated for surplus lands purchased with public money. Even so, some board members said that the price of the land should be figured at its original cost.
Under a compromise proposal worked out with the Supervisors, the sale price of the sites will be the purchase price less the bond obligation for a total of $462,209.
Although the final vote to accept the Board's offer was unanimous, several members made clear their reservations about the proposal.
Board Chairman Rodney F. Page said he worried that by accepting the proposal, "We will be setting a precedent that will preclude us from getting fair market value in future negotiations."
Mason District board member Mary Ann Lecos said she felt the school board should counter the offer. She suggested requesting a lump sum payment rather than payments over 20 years with no interest.
But Anne P. Kahn, member from the Providence District, said the suggestion had already been discussed in negotiations with the Supervisors and had no support.
The five sites involved in the transfer are Chesterbrook Woods Elementary in the McLean area, Collingwood Elementary in the Mount Vernon area, Idylwood Elementary in the Providence District. Pinecrest Intermediate and Pinecrest High School, both in the Mason District.
The five sites are part of 14 surplus sites announced by the school board last year. Seven of the 14 had been purchased by the board and seven had been dedicated for school use.
After a county staff analysis of the sites, the park authority recommended that five of the purchased sites and three of the dedicated sites be transferred to the county. The dedicated sites involve no reimbursement since they cost the schools nothing.
The three dedicated schools sites that will be transferred to the park authority at no charge are the Beverly Park Elementary site in Springfield, the Fitzhugh Elementary site in Annandale and the Spring Lake ELementary site in the Centreville District.
Two purchased sites, the Ossian Hall site in Annandale and the Dogue Creek site in MT. Vernon were deemed unsuitable for parks or other county uses.
In deferring the action on a new school closing policy, Mount Vernon board member Ruth Dell explained, "We would like the Supervisors to know that we are going into a new process and to know why we think the new process will be an improvement."
The Fairfax County School board conducted four school closing studies last year. As a result, one of those schools, Quander Road Elementary, will close this June. It will become a special education facility for emotionally disturbed youngsters next fall.
Three others, Devonshire, Dunn Loring and Mount Eagle Elementary Schools, were not closed.
Complaints received during the four studies contributed to the staff decision that a new policy was needed. The complaints centered on different interpretations of what the studies were to include, the lack of a regular method for informing the community, inadequate justiciations for the study, and helping to set up an adversary relationship between the community and the school staff conducting the studies.
According to Dell, the complaints were among many things that indicated that the policy needed to be changed.
The new policy, if adopted, would require a complete staff study, allow a full period for community reaction and suggestions on the study, set up a task force of citizens to study the proposals and alternatives and set up guidelines for the kinds of criteria that would be used in the closing studies.
"One of the things that I'm concerned about is that the criteria be evenly applied," said Dell. "We want to see that all the closings are not concentrated in one area."
The school population has been dropping steadily and if the drop continues the planning department of the schools has indicated that nine or then school areas or clusters of schools could be candidates for the school closing studies in the next three to five years.
"One of the things that has been misinterpreted is that a school closing study does not necessarily mean a school will close," Dell explained.
She acknowledged that while demographic data was very important, it is not the only criteria for closing a school. "It is not a case of wanting to jam a number of kids into a particular school building," she said.
She said the studies should take into account the educational program and its continuity and the effect the closing will have on both the school to be closed and the school that the children will be moving to. One factor in favor of the Mount Eagle School remaining open was that all the students walk to it, one of the few in the county where that is the case, according to Dell.