Decisions made this week by parents and students at Fort Hunt and Groveton high schools to solve the problem of declining enrollment in the Mount Vernon area could touch off a battle between the two communities.
The Groveton group, Citizens Associated for Responsible Education, at a public meeting Monday night endorsed the recommendations of a citizens task force to convert Fort Hunt High School to an intermediate school, close Bryant and Foster intermediate schools, and renovate Whitman Intermediate.
The Groveton group said the task force recommendation would provide "a full program of academic and vocational studies for all students, and ensure long-term stability" for area schools.
The Neighborhood Schools Coalition of the Fort Hunt Area, however, wants to keep all high schools in the area open, and it held a rally Monday night to generate support for its position. Peter Brinitzer, the group's chairman, said "there is absolutely no justification to close a high school so soon after being built." Groveton was built eight years ago and Fort Hunt was reopened after a fire five years ago.
"As a matter of quality and excellence in education, you do not close one of the finest, most excellent high schools in the Virginia high school system," said Brinitzer, indicating that he believes that both Fort Hunt and Groveton fall in this category.
The Groveton and Fort Hunt positions go against a recommendation by Fairfax County School Superintendent William J. Burkholder to convert Groveton to an intermediate school and close Bryant, Foster and Whitman intermediate schools. Burkholder said the primary reason for his proposal is that it would save more money than the task force recommendation.
The School Board is scheduled to decide March 14 after a series of public hearings.
The growing division between the two communities concerns everyone. No matter what the School Board decides, said Burkholder, "the issue is traumatic. It is unfortunate that this has split the two communities."
Fort Hunt and Groveton leaders said their groups harbor no ill feelings, but a war of rhetoric has begun. "We believe we join Mount Vernon District Supervisor T. Farrell Egge in feeling total chagrin that, for self-serving reasons, our neighbors' leadership appears to continue to want to close down their neighbors' school while remaining unscathed themselves," said Fort Hunt's Brinitzer.
Groveton's Jim Roberts denied the claim that his group was being selfish. "Our position is not aimed at them. The task force recommendation is designed for all the kids in the area, not just a select group. The proposal provides two high-quality high schools, rather than three average ones," he said.
Bob Smith, cochairman of the Groveton group, defended Groveton's position by pointing out that if all the schools in the area were to remain open, they would all come "dangerously close to a trigger point where they would become candidates for consolidation." The county has determined that if a high school's enrollment falls as low as 1,250 students, then the School Board may consider consolidating it with another school.
Brinitzer said the endorsement of the task force report by the Groveton group "was not unexpected" and will "have no impact on our decision. Our position has been, and continues to be, to keep all the schools open. We have the data to back it up."
Burkholder, who said he "could live with" the task force proposal but believes his is better, said, "We have a lot of wounds to heal in the Mount Vernon community."