Several days after the Fairfax County School Board voted to close Fort Hunt High School, Supervisor Audrey Moore, an Annandale Democrat, was surprised to receive a telephone call from Benton K. Partin, chairman of the Fairfax Republican Party.
Partin says he wanted Moore to persuade Laura I. McDowell, Moore's appointee to the School Board, to reconsider her vote to shut Fort Hunt so the issue could be reopened.
Partin coupled his request with what Moore recalls as a polite, but firm warning: The GOP, Partin said, would target any county supervisor in the next election whose school board member favored shutting a neighborhood school.
"I guess I was really taken aback," said Moore. "I'd never had that kind of call before. . . . . And he was asking me to do something I wasn't in a position to do. I felt like the School Board had made its decision. I didn't know on what basis Laura had voted to close the school, but I wasn't going to second-guess her on something like that."
Moore said it was the first time since she joined the county board in 1971, that she can recall, that party politics have become involved in school decisions in Fairfax. She also said her decision not to speak to McDowell about the isssue points up the "delicate relationship" between the county's governing supervisors and the members of the School Board whom they appoint.
In a county where politicans say residents care more about their schools than anything else -- except, perhaps, the roads -- the nine elected supervisors traditionally have tried to distance themselves from the School Board and its often politically unpopular decisions. (Yesterday the supervisors rejected by a 5-to-2 vote a move by Republican Supervisor T. Farrell Egge to oust School Board Chairman Mary E. Collier, a Republican, because of her vote to close Fort Hunt.)
But the relationships between the elected supervisors and their appointees continue. (Virginia is the only state in which School Board members are not elected.) And at no time are the ties of more concern than when the School Board shuts one of the county's high schools to solve a problem of declining enrollments.
Many School Board members emphatically deny the Fort Hunt vote was influenced by politics, or that it was partisan, although it appeared to break along party lines. Collier was the only member appointed by a Republican supervisor to join the 6-to-4 vote to close the school.
Republican Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III of the Mason District has called the Fort Hunt vote "definitely political" and says it "holds the potential for 'partisanizing' some of these things unless it's defused in a hurry." He blamed a weak Republican coalition on the School Board and a strong Democratic majority for the outcome of the Fort Hunt vote.
"As far as I know, there was no political string pulling us to vote one way or the other," countered School Board Vice Chairman Carmin C. (Chuck) Caputo.
"I don't know where they're getting that it was political, or that it was decided ahead of time," said School Board member Anthony Lane. "I think this board has, in all the time I've been on it, been able to stay away from partisan politics."
Others say it's impossible for an appointed School Board to distance itself totally from the politics of the sitting supervisors. They speak of subtle pressures and of the kind of alleged back-room meddling that last week prompted 32 Fort Hunt parents to file three lawsuits against the School Board in a effort to overturn the closing decision.
Specifically mentioned in the lawsuits are former supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth of the Mount Vernon District and Supervisor Joseph Alexander of Lee District. The two Democrats have dismissed the allegations of political maneuvering as "ridiculous."