Even the most optimistic members of the Arlington County school board would not predict last week that their decision to close one elementary school would be anything more than a short-term remedy for the continuing problem of declining enrollment.
The unanimous vote to close Stonewall Jackson Elementary at the end of this school year pleased neither Jackson supporters nor Superintendent Larry Cuban, who argued that the continuing drop in elementary enrollment, from 13,775 to 8,825 during the past 10 years, required the closing of two schools.
"There is no question in my mind that this county will have to continue to close schools," Cuban said before the board vote. He asked the board not to be misled by conflicting enrollment projections. A decision to close just one school, he said, would create "serious problems." But he said he was more afraid the board might take a "disastrous course" and vote not to close any schools.
"I raise the issue (of closing no schools) because that is always a seductive option when faced by this type of situation."
School board members needed no convincing to close one school. In presentations to an audience of 60 parents, many of whom had attended every consolidation hearing, they echoed board member Mary Margaret Whipple who said the end of the enrollment decline is "not in sight."
But board members disagreed with Cuban on the rate of that decline. Citing the opening of four stops on Metro's Orange Line in Arlington and the soon to be completed I-66 highway project, they said the future of school enrollments was in doubt.
"There are too many unpredictable factors. We could come to deeply regret this decision in a few years as we scramble to open new schools," said board member Torill B. Floyd. "It would be irresponsible for the school board to move too fast."
The vote to close Jackson, which had been Cuban's first choice, was unanimous. Board members cited the age of the school, built in 1926, as the principal reason for the decision. If a second school had been closed, the board indicated Reed would have been chosen. Cuban had recommended Ashlawn as his second choice. But board members said Ashlawn's superior facilities gave it the advantage over Reed.
"We're very pleased the board was so responsive to the information we presented them. I think they did an excellent job and made a wise decision," said Ashlawn Coalition leader Joan Horwitt, who began lobbying last summer to keep the school open.
Jackson supporters naturally were less complimentary of the board. One Jackson parent, John Gorman, said the decision "stinks." He was most upset because Jackson, with 244 students had the highest enrollment of the three schools considered in the final study.
Board members admitted that last week's decision may mean some of the same schools will be considered for closing again within a few years. But school board Chairman Ann Broder said that when she warned parents at Ashlawn and Reed of that possibility, they were undaunted.
"They said that's all right, just give us our schools."