The Fairfax County School Board agreed last night to draft a policy that will be aimed at reducing the controversy and community anguish over school closings made necessary by shrinking enrollments and rising costs.
At the same time, board members tried to overcome objections that the new policy -- designed to facilitate closings through voluntary community agreements to consolidate groups of schools -- could lead to racially or socially motivated closings and discriminate against communities with greater numbers of minority or less affluent pupils.
Along with other school districts throughout the Washington area, Fairfax has been wrestling with the problem of school closings for several years.
The county has shut 17 elementary schools in the past decade, most of them in the face of emotional community opposition.
A trend has emerged in the past two years with parents organizing and making their own recommendations for school mergers in an effort to avoid the emotional confrontations with the board so frequent in the past.
The board approved four of these merger arrangements but lacked a policy governing them. With more requests for mergers likely, the board decided to agree on some criteria.
"Allowing local parent-teacher associations to agree on which schools should close opens up possibilities for a lot of unhealthy things to go on," said board member Robert E. Frye, who originally opposed any merger policies. Frye argued that while the mergers are "expedient politically" they may not necessarily be carried out in the best interest of all parties involved.
His objection was that some communities might band together to draw attendance boundaries for their merged schools that would exclude neighborhoods with poor or minority children.
"Nobody's looking for any racially motivated mergers," countered board member Gerald A. Fill.
After a heated hour-long debate, the board voted unanimously to instruct the school system staff to draft guidelines for allowing voluntary school mergers consistent with existing guidelines for school closings that contain safeguards for minorities.
School board Chairman Ann P. Kahn argued that the voluntary mergers are "not easy -- there's just a little less bitterness involved."
In recent weeks two more groups have requested mergers. Parents in the Annandale area have asked the board to move Chapel Square students to nearby Wakefield Forest Elementary School; and parents in Fairfax City petitioned the city school board to close John C. Wood and transfer the students to nearby Layton Hall. The city's school board contracts for services with the county school board, which would have to approve a merger.
The county school board decided last night to exempt those two merger requests from any policies it implements for voluntary mergers.
School officials have estimated that at least two dozen of the county's 116 elementary school are operating substantially below capacity and could become subjects of future consolidation proposals.
Despite its declining enrollment, Fairfax County is still the largest school system in the metropolitan area, with 122,600 students.
Because of rapid development in western Fairfax, the school board is planning to open new schools on the fringes of the county while it is considering closings in some inner county neighborhoods where enrollments are dropping.