When Fairfax County School Superintendent William J. Burkholder made a surprise recommendation in December to change Groveton High School, south of Alexandria, into an intermediate school, members of the Groveton community say they reacted first with shock, then anger, then determination to fight the proposal.
At a hastily organized mid-December rally, the community turned the emotion of the moment into a large organization to keep Groveton as a high school: Citizens Associated for Responsible Education (CARE), a group with more than 1,500 members organized into eight standing committees.
"The surprising thing is that this group exists at all," said Grant Harris, president of the Groveton PTA. "The perception in the county over the years has been that Groveton, which is one of the most diverse communities in the county, was not that well organized."
Others concur. Noting that Groveton students come from an extremely wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, group leader Dale Brown said the fight "has brought a sense of family to this community that it never knew it had."
Burkholder's proposal was to convert Groveton to an intermediate school beginning in September and close Bryant, Foster and Whitman intermediate schools. It went against a recommendation by a citizen task force assigned to look at declining enrollment in the Mount Vernon area that proposed converting nearby Fort Hunt High School to an intermediate school, closing Bryant and Foster, and renovating Whitman.
Both proposals followed months of public debate in which parents and students from the three high schools in the area, Mount Vernon, Groveton and Fort Hunt, packed public meetings to argue for the preservation of their schools.
Citizens Associated for Responsible Education is headed by three cochairmen, Bob Smith, Jim Roberts and Barbara Rosenfeld, who oversee eight committees. Each committee meets at least once a week, and a steering committee of each group's chairman also meets once a week to give progress reports and discuss strategy.
Wayne Mehl, who has had a son graduate from Fort Hunt and a daughter from Groveton, said there will be two stages in the organization's battle.
"The first is opposition to the superintendent's proposal ," he said. "We took that step with great confidence and assuredness. Further steps, such as possible solutions, are more complicated. When we take a stand on possible solutions , it will be only when we have the same level of confidence and assuredness as we did with the first step opposing Mr. Burkholder's plan."
In implementing its first stage, the group is concentrating on making its opposition to the Burkholder plan known, loud and clear.
Members and others in the community have sent thousands of letters to the superintendent, the School Board and local newspapers.
In addition, more than 5,000 people signed a petition delivered to Burkholder stating their opposition to his plan.
Student members of the group staged a candlelight vigil preceding a Jan. 8 presentation at the school by Area I Superintendent Doris Torrice, who has been traveling to the three high schools in the Mount Vernon area explaining and defending the superintendent's proposal.
Members of the group were prominent in asking Torrice questions at the presentation.
Smith said the group is also "researching various issues, trying to come up with a fair and equitable proposal based on the facts" to offer as a counterproposal to Burkholder's plan when the School Board holds the first of four public hearings on the plan Feb. 21.
Other hearings will be held Feb. 23, 25 and 26. The superintendent will make his final recommendation Feb. 28, and the School Board will make its decision March 14.
In order to fund its various activities, Citizens Associated for Responsible Education will sponsor a benefit concert at the school to be given Saturday by the musical group "Radiant," most of whose members are Groveton graduates. Smith said the citizens' group hopes to net about $3,000 to $4,000 from the concert.
"The main thing from here on," Smith said, "is to keep up the intensity of the initial rally, to keep the community active."
In its argument against Burkholder's proposal, the group maintains Groveton is inappropriate as an intermediate school.
"It has a three-building campus designed specifically for a high school meeting a broad variety of needs," said cochairman Roberts.
"Its excellent new facilities, such as the day care center, the television production studio, the large automotive shop and the cosmetology center, are all specifically designed for high school students," he said. "Using this type of campus for an intermediate school is a tremendous waste of resources."
Group members say they also object to the fact that under Burkholder's plan, Groveton would be the only intermediate school for the Mount Vernon area, and would have a projected enrollment of more than 1,700 students.
They believe that would make it too large, and cite a 1982 task force report in recommending that no new intermediate school larger than 1,000 students be built in the county.
Moreover, said Dale Brown, who has a daughter at the school and another who graduated two years ago, "It's a kind of useless two years that would be spent there, with the grades split into two buildings, and then split again when they go to high school. There would be no chance to build lasting friendships."
Burkholder said the primary reason for his proposal is that it would save more money than the task force's proposal.
Not renovating Whitman Intermediate School, he said, would save about $5.8 initially, and a total of $11 million over a 20-year-period -- what it would cost to pay back bonds necessary to pay for the renovations.
In addition, Burkholder said, his plan saves about $2.1 million a year in operating costs, about $650,000 more than would be saved by the task force proposal.
"I don't think 1,700 students is too large for an intermediate school," Burkholder said. "We have done it before successfully -- Irving Intermediate School had more than 1,700 kids and it operated very well."
Groveton's three-building campus, he said, is another advantage for use as an intermediate school. "We can easily organize sub-schools," he said.
"I find it a very positive sign that the Groveton community is objecting," he said. "It would be terrible if they weren't concerned that their school might be closed. I find this a healthy, even necessary debate."