Efforts to create an independent school system in Fairfax City, defeated earlier this year when the school board refused to request a referendum on the issue, have been revived through a petition drive supported by 1,400 citizens.
But the city council, involved in negotiations with Fairfax County on all city service contracts rejected the petitions last week with warnings that a fight over a local school system would disrupt the city.
Both sides used strong language in describing the latest actions on the school issue, indicating the intransigence and bitterness on the question of who should run the seven city schools that serve 5,000 students.
Carol Allison, one of the 40 citizens who worked in August to obtain the petition signatures from Fairfax's 8,400 voters, described the city council that rejected the proposals 5-to-1 as hostile and heavy-handed.
"Three of the members brow-beat the man who presented the petitions. He was very calm and very polite, and they just proceded to browbeat him. It was unconscioniable, really," she said.
But council member Walter L. Stephens Jr., one of those Allison accused, said he took offense at the petitioners' persistence and unwillingness to accept the council's decision. Petitioner James Oliver repeatedly told council members that he did not accept their explanations.
"I wasn't hostile to them," Stephens said. "I guess I was a little irritated that they keep pursuing it when someone gives the reasons why and the man just sits there and says, 'I'm not going to accept it.'"
"You can't ignore the political facts of life, that the people overwhelmingly oppose an independent school system. The people that signed that petition are just a faction," he said. "You have a small group of people running around stirring things up."
The debate over Fairfax City's unique school system is not new even if it is heating up. The city contracts for the county to run its schools, retaining nominal authority through a city school board but allowing the county to retain real control over the schools.
Since Fairfax became an independent city in 1961, there have been repeated efforts to put the schools under full local control. City elections in 1964 and a bond referendum referring to purchase of school buildings in 1967 focused on the issue. So did school board hearings earlier this year, which resulted in a board decision not to call for a referendum.
To Stephens, the strength of feelings on the subject is itself a reason to avoid a referendum. "People played out their emotions in 1964, but we have people now that don't remember 1964 or the hostilities that existed. It took a long time to heal," he said.
The city-county negotiations that began last month are the main reasons council members gave for rejecting a referendum. The school service contract is scheduled to be the last one negotiated, possibly around November, and some citizens want to see if complaints with the school system can be satisfied in a new contract.
Stephens said a referendum would undercut the council's attempt to negotiate with the county in good faith. He added that "until you make a bona fide attempt to correct the system (in the negotiations), then I don't think you can put it to a referendum."
The petitioners, however, see the negotiation argument merely as evidence of "a council that is hell-bent on running to the county on everything," in Allison's words.
Allison indicated she thought the negotiation argument was a runaround as well: "They're telling us now that we're endangering these negotiations. But after the contract is settled on, they'll tell us the contract is all settled and it's too late."
The petitioners, described by Allison as a loosely organized group, haven't decided on their next step. The one council member who supported them, Leonard A. Mobley, admitted that "the time wasn't right for us" last week. But Mobley said the controversy would continue until a referendum is held.
"I don't think I've ever heard of a government body turning down such a significant number of people when they petitioned for something," he said. "I've heard the council say time and time again that they'd let the voters decide . . . I'd like to see it settled one way or the other."