For Alexandria School Superintendent Dr. John L. Bristol, this has been a year of unexpected and largely unwelcome surprises.
When he succeeded John C. Albohm last August, the 44-year-old Bristol knew he eventually would have to confront the problems facing school districts across the United States: declining enrollments coupled with reductions in state aid and taxpayer unhappiness with the rising costs of public education.
This, however, was supposed to be a quiet year for the Alexandria public school system after the desegregation and school consolidation battles of the recent past. The hope was that Bristol, a former Minnesota educator who likes to pepper his presentations to the school board with an occasional quip, would have time to ease into his new job. It has not turned out that way.
Nevertheless, Bristol claims to have gone through the last few months unreffled. "I believe the things I've encountered are the things I anticipated," he told a visitor recently.
The problems began last October when the owners of the Shirley-Duke apartment complex announced its closing, to be phased out within a year. This meant that Patrick Henry Elementary School, which serves the area, would lose the majority of its 580 students. In February, Bristol recommended to the School Board that Patrick Henry and Robert E. Lee elementary schools be closed due to declining enrollments.
Then in December, Alexandria Mayor Frank E. mann proposed that the city try to attract a minor league baseball club, and it was suggested that the team use the facilities at the Cora Kelly Elementary School, which has been temporarily closed due to flooding problems. What ensued was a two-month fight to convince the School Board to lease the facility to the city for use by the Class A minor league team that had agreed to play in Alexandria. The issue caused a good deal of friction between the School Board and the City Council just at the time Bristol was preparing to present his first budget.
Finally, the new superintendent was required to lobby intensively to convince the state legislature not to cut more than $3 million in state aid to the public school system. In the end, the legislature cut about $400,000 in aid to the Alexandria schools, but bigger cuts loom when the legislature convenes for its next session.
"Learning time and seasoning (for the new superintendent) was brought rather abruptly to a close on two matters that were not anticipated and which required immediate action," remarked School Board Chairman carlyle C. Ring in a reference to the proposals for school closings and a baseball team.
The consensus among a sampling of School Board members and others seems to be that Bristol has fared quite well during his seven months in office despite the unexpected pressures.
Bristol himself seems to have taken the events in stride, and is, in fact, now initiating a study to determine what recommendations he will make next year about secondary school consolidations. That issue is a Pandora's Box in Alexandria, which in the past has raised racial questions and which a succession of school boards have not been able to resolve.
"School consolidation," Bristol said, "if not done in timely manner will have to be done in a precipitous manner, which without question will have a negative impact on education quality."
Any delay in implementing his school closing plans, Bristol explained, will mean that some teachers will lose jobs and that their focus will switch from teaching to job-security.Under his plans, no teachers will be fired and any staff reductions will come through attrition.
While Bristol has received praise for his performance, several School Board members expressed private reservations about his style, which some consider to be less open than that of his predecessor. Other complaints focus on deeper issues.
One School Board member complained: "I don't think he understands the complexity of the community. I don't think he understands the needs of the black community, the needs of the foreign-born community."
Bristol, who earned a doctorate from Michigan State University in curriculum and educational management, has four children, all of whom are attending Alexandria public schools. He came to Alexandria from the Rosemont-Apple Valley School District in Minnesota, where he had served as superintendent since 1972. Although both school systems are about the same siz (10,400 students at Rosemont-Apple Valley compared to 12,700 pupils in Alexandria), the similarities stop there.
While Rosemont-Apple Valley is a suburban area, Alexandria presents a microcosm of the American city in the 1970s with all the problems that entails. While Bristol's former school system has experienced an increasing student enrollment, Alexandria has seen its enrollment drop by 84 percent since 1970 with further declines projected. While less than 5 percent of the students in the Rosemont-Apple Valley district belong to min ority groups, Alexandria, during the 1976-77 school year, became the first Washington suburb to have blacks outnumber whites in enrollment in the public schools.
In his seven months in office, Bristol has become know for his decisiveness. He likes to study a problem, such as the possibility of closing schools, and then, heavily armed with the facts, present his course of action to the School Board.
"I ratehr suspect that he's ruffling some feathers," remarked one School Board member. The School Board previously operated under a committee system, which some members believe gave them more of an opportunity to exchange ideas with the staff and work more closely in the development of policy.
Other board members point out, however, that the board decided to do away with the committee system before Bristol became superintendent, and that former superintendents also have come forward with specific proposals have been more than ready to support them.
Bristol himself says his relationship with the board has been good, and he praises the interest and diversity of the nine members. Asked about his relationship with the City Council, particularly after the baseball controversy, Bristol replied: "I do not see any evidence that the fine working relationship I've enjoyed has eroded."
Bristol, who was chosen from 133 applicants, in large part because of his managerial and budgetary skills, says his first priority is "to address the educational needs of the students on a cost-effective manner."
On Feb. 1, Bristol presented a $32.4 million budget for fiscal year 1978-79. Included in the budget are projected savings of $500,000 if the School Board follows his recommendation to close Patrick Henry and Robert E. Lee elementary scholls. Over the next five years, Bristol has predicted, closing the two schools will save the taxpayers about $4.5 million.
Although still new to the system, Bristol has learned that criticising the state legislature for being "anti-Northern Virginia" is a popular game in these parts. If his comments on the matter are an indication, he is becoming adept at playing.
"They're pleased to pass massive legislation for the improvement of education," he said recently. "And they're pleased to pass it in a regulatory manner, but they do not pass the funds to fund it.
"Let's fund our concersn. Let's be honest in our dealing with these issues."
And later he added: "We can't operate without resources, philosophy only goes so far."
Bristol's tangling with state governments is nothing new. He left the Rosemont-Apple Valley School Disctrict after five years as superintendent because he was "deeply concerned about the erosion of local control to the state level," according to the chairman of the school board there.
Bristol, who has a four-year contract with the School Board, wants to establish a system of evaluating students in a more objective manner than is presently done. He believes more emphasis on structure in curriculums may be necessary than presently and thinks testing methods must be updated.
"We attempted to superimpose a non-traditional program (in the 1960s) and evaluated it against traditional criteria, and then we feigned amazement at the outcome," said Bristol. Many students, he explained, are now permitted to study highly specific subjects, but the standard tests expect students to have general knowledge about broad areas of study such as world history.
When he first arrived last summer, Bristol visited the schools and was reported to have been dismayed at their appearance. Shortly thereafter, in a signal that he would move decisively, whether the issue be school grounds or school consolidation, ground crews were ordered to upgrade the yards.
"I think some people," Bristol said recently in an unusually revealing remark, "spend all their time on analysis and none on therapy."