Mention a school closing in one of Washington's affluent suburbs, peopled with government workers, and you'll probably get a legion of parents armed with computer print-outs and other sophisticated, very technical, data to prove why their school shouldn't be singled out.
Angry parents, with "why me?" attitudes, have threatened lawsuits, charged school boards with irresponsibility (and much worse), jammed school board meetings and staged sit-ins to protest school closings. Their school's closing.
Fairfax County, new to school closing but facing the prospect of many [WORD ILLEGIBLE] if enrollments continue to decline at the present rate of about 2,100 students a year, has embarked on an effort to avert, or at least ease, the painful ordeal that almost always makes adversaries of parents and school boards.
Since October, more than 80 Fairfax County residents - including senior citizens, career government employes housewives, citizen activists and just plain parents - have worked on a game plan they believe the Fairfax school board should use when it begins closing a still undetermined number of schools in about a year and a half.
The plan comes up at a school board hearing at 8 p.m. tonight at Lake Braddock Secondary School. Another public hearing on the plan will be held June 15 at Robinson Secondary School.
The ugly words "school closing" never appear in the name of this grass-roots organization or in its comprehensive 55-page report that went to the school board May 8. Working under the name, "Citizen Task Forces on Declining School Enrollment and Efficient Use of School Facilities," the members were appointed by the school board, school staff and county civic groups to study the school "consolidation" issue and propose ways to approach the sticky problem.
"I don't see how we can avoid closing schools," said Nancy Falck, the school board member who represents the Dranesville District. "We thought if we developed an orderly process for closing schools with a broad representation of citizens, then it would be more acceptable to the community."
Fairfax County has closed five schools since 1974, and all but one became the focus of bitter controversy.
"We've always had a guilding policy for closing schools, but almost each of those five schools were closed under a different one," said school board Chairman Rodney Page.
The citizens' recommendations attempt to give the school board fodder for a comprehensive and consistent policy that will apply to all school closings. The report's cool, factual statistics, compiled during orderly weekly meetings, contrast pointedly with the emotional fervor of a community undergoing a real-life closing.
The report says an elementary school should be studied for closing when it does not have enough students to fill two full classrooms per grade - roughly 350 to 400 students.
Currently, 25 schools in the county have enrollments of fewer than 350 pupils; in 1951, 60 of the 124 elementary schools will have fewer than 350, according to the school system's planning office.
Most of the schools are in the older, eastern parts of Fairfax County, where enrollments has been shrinking for the last 10 years.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the 406-square-mile county, in the Pohick and Reston areas, new schools are being built to accommodate increasing enrollments. Overcrowding plagues existing schools there, as houses spring up as weeds once did in the formerly rural areas of the county.
"Closing schools is an overwhelmingly complicated issue, with all there is to consider," said Vivian Watts, chairwoman of the 19-member countywide task force. The group reviewed the findings of four similar sub-groups studying enrollment in different areas of the county and forged them into the single report.
"We had to consider how long kids should be bused, how far they should be allowed to walk to school, the number of times they would be shifted from school to school, how teachers would be reassigned, how to use the school after it closed . . . the list is never-ending," Watts said.
Low enrollment is only of the conditions that would trigger a study on the possibility of closing a school, if the school board adopts the task force report. The board is expected to act on the report July 13.
A school also could be considered for closing if it is scheduled for major renovation or if its operating cost per student has been significantly higher than the average countywide cost during the previous five years.
The report also recommends that:
Closing studies cover a group of adjacent schools rather than only one school. Previously, the school board has selected a single school for study without looking at surrounding schools.
The school system change the way it figures cost per pupil. One change would prorate and subtract the operating costs of classrooms used for programs that attract other than local pupils, such as special education.
The schools adopt an 11-month calendar (from January to Dec. 1) to study closing a school. The proposal would allow plentiful public participation and time to revise student enrollment projections after new totals are made at the beginning of each school year.
The average school bus ride not exceed 45 minutes one way, meaning that some students would ride buses longer than 45 minutes per day.
Communication between county and school agencies be improved. The task force said there is too little cooperation between the two groups, preventing maximum shared use of available school facilities.
A community coordinator be hired to work under the Fairfax County executive.The coordinator would review possible uses for vacated school space and act as a liaison between school and county officials and the community where the school is being closed.
The school board has approached most of the recommendations without question, as few of them differed from criteria the board has used at one time or another to close a school.
But the proposal for a community coordinator has caused some wariness on the board, which remembers some less-than-pleasant scuffles with the county over how the schools should be run.
"I don't think it's wise to have a county employe reporting to the school board," Page said. "Such a position should be under the province of the school board."
Page indicated that the board probably would adopt the closing study "triggers," in July, but would wait to adopt other recommendations the board considered "farther afield from the original charge given the task force."
The areas he regards "farther afield" include task force recommendations on improving school planning and attention to philosophical questions such as defining educational quality and equal educational opportunity.
The school board expects the task force efforts to minimize at least one charge that invariably arises over school closings: that there was not enough citizen participation.
But the board also knows, despite the intricate efforts to tackle the issue on paper, that it is going to be a bumpy road ahead:
"Everyone wants to see things go on as comfortably as they always have," Falck said. "But the world is changing and so is Fairfax. We can all fight about it or face up to the challenge of accommodating the changes as best we can. The schools aren't going to be the same."