The Fairfax County school board, faced with the prospect of closing several schools in the next few years because of declining student enrollment, has not yet been able to decide how to accomplish the task.
In June and July, the school board delayed adopting a policy that would allow the county to study at least 25 schools for closing within the next five years. Last week, at its first official meeting after a summer recess, the school board again delayed a decision on the proposed policy until early November.
"There are valid reasons to delay for a reasonable period," said school board Chairman Rodney Page while the board debated for an hour whether to postpone the decision. "The board, in fact, is very close to deciding on the criteria for closing schools."
Although the board voted 7 to 3 to delay a decision, it agreed to continue a moratorium on school closing until the new policy goes into effect in September 1979.
The new policy is a response to Fairfax County's declining student enrollment, which is falling at the rate of more than 2,000 students a year. Last year, there were nearly 132,000 students enrolled in the county's 163 schools and 21 special education centers. This year, there were 129,260 enrolled on Sept. 5, the first day of school. That number is expected to increase by the end of the month.
Most of the decline is in the older, eastern sections of the 400-square-mile county where neighborhoods are more settled. The decline also is more severe in the lower grades, so the county's 122 elementary schools would be most affected by a school-closing policy.
At the same time, student enrollments are increasing in the rapidly developing western sections of the county, requiring new schools to be built despite the shrinking enrollment countywide.
The proposed policy, developed this summer by school staff after recommendations by citizen study groups from throughout the county, would establish several conditions that would allow schools to be studied for possible closing.
One of the most significant conditions would be if a school enrollment is too small to fill two classrooms per grade. That roughly translates to about 350 pupils in an elementary school with kindergarten through sixth grade.
Last year, 25 elementary schools had enrollments of fewer than 350 pupils, according to a citizen task force study on the declining enrollment problem. There are expected to be 60 elementary schools with enrollments of fewer than 350 students by 1982, according to the school planning office.
Fairfax County has closed only five schools because of declining enrollments. They were closed in the last four years, and all but one were the focus of bitter controversy, with angry parents leveling charges at the school board that parents were not involved enough in the decision making.
"We've always had guiding policies for closing schools," Page has explained in the past. "But almost each of those five schools was closed under a different one."
The new policy is intended to give the board a comprehensive approach to the problem of closing many schools rather than a few. It is also intended to minimize the community disruption that often goes with school closings by allowing much citizen participation in the process.
"It's inconceivable to even think of closing as many as 64 or whatever schools," said Fairfax school planner Nathaniel Orieans. "That number just gives a good indication of how much (school) consolidation could take place. And that's just the problem - with all the schools that could be looked at for closing, how do you choose which are the best to close?"
The proposed policy would allow school officials to consider closing a school if the cost per pupil there has been significantly higher than the countywide average for three years.
A school also could be studied for closing if it is scheduled for major renovation.
When an elementary school is selected for a closing study, adjacent schools would be studied also, the policy states. In choosing the group of schools, school officials would consider natural boundaries, safety hazards and transportation barriers.
A community advisory committee of representatives from affected schools and communities would help conduct a closing study, according to the policy.
The board did not establish a timetable for making the complicated closing study, which would involve extensive community review. But school staff has recommended that the process be limited to one school year.
Since the policy would not be effective until next September, it is likely that the board will make no decision on which school or schools to close until at least the summer of 1979.
The policy states that the following considerations would be taken into account when studying groups of schools for possible closing: building design and site adequacy, community, cost, enrollment, physical facilities, quality of education, student and staff transfer, transporation and possible alternative uses for the school.
The board delayed voting on the policy until the results of a countywide school boundary study are available in late October and to allow review by the citizen task force that helped develop the school closing plan.
Several school board members listed a variety of concerns with the policy, with some wanting it to be more specific.
Board member Nancy Faick, who represents the Draneville District, said the policy had "political overtones" and urged the board to brief the county supervisors on it before making a decision.
Others, however, warned against delay.
Ann Kahn, of Providence District, told the board that a new school bond referendum would probably go before a "slightly hysterical" public at the same time groups of schools are studied for closing.
Robert Smith, of Annandale District, said if the board delayed too long it would find itself "backing into" closing schools one by one because of what he termed "a very bad situation" now in underenrollment in parts of the county.
Smith and at-large board mayors Gary Jones and Robert Frye against delay.