Prompted by complaints of special treatment from McLean parents, Fairfax County School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane has said he erred in his original explanation of why Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb's daughter will attend Langley High School, even though her family home is in McLean High's attendance zone.
He maintained, however, that the decision to allow 15-year-old Catherine Robb to attend Langley High is correct.
The Robb home on Chain Bridge Road in McLean was in the Langley district before a boundary change last year that moved several dozen children who would have gone from Langley to McLean High. Spillane's original explanation was that all students in homes affected by the change would be allowed to choose Langley or McLean.
On Friday, Spillane revised that explanation to say that the choice of school was allowed only to students enrolling as juniors or seniors. Catherine Robb has enough credits to enroll as a junior, he said.
The news that Catherine Robb will attend Langley when the family returns from Richmond at the end of Robb's term set off a minor flap in the upper-income McLean neighborhood. Several parents called the superintendent's office and The Washington Post to contend that the Robbs' daughter is getting special treatment. Although both schools have good academic reputations, Langley is seen by some as having more status because it draws children from wealthier families.
Catherine Robb is of sophomore age but accelerated her academic program while attending school in Richmond and earned enough credits to register as a junior in Richmond, according to Fairfax County schools spokesman Dolores Bohen. The governor's press spokesman, George Stoddart, had said she was a sophomore.
"I was in error," Spillane said. "She is technically a junior, and in that case . . . qualified by the policy that we have. No question about it."
He added: "If it's John Jones and his daughter Sally, would the same treatment be given? Absolutely."
The boundary change was opposed by many of the several dozen parents whose children were sent to McLean instead of Langley, and some said they were upset even after hearing Spillane's new explanation.
"I submit to you: If I had moved out and moved back, I would not be given a choice," said Charles Davenport. "It's obviously a case of preference."
Spillane's reasoning, he said, is "just a handy explanation for some political superintendent to explain giving preference to somebody."
Davenport, who has one child at McLean and another at Langley because of the boundary change, said he is a longtime Democrat and former member of the Democratic State Central Committee who voted and campaigned for Robb. "I don't know why he wants to act like a Republican," Davenport said.
He said he likes both high schools but said there is a "tremendous snob factor" in attending Langley.
"It's clear to me that she did get special treatment," said Susan Roth, mother of a McLean High School sophomore affected by the boundary change. "It's just creating a lot of ill will in the area." Spillane's explanation, she said, is "a defensive posture, an excuse."
Another parent, who did not want to be identified, said Spillane's explanation is at variance with what parents understood the rules to be when the boundaries were changed. "It was our understanding when we went through this boundary battle that there were no new students [students who just moved to the area] who would go to Langley," she said.
Robb's youngest daughter, Jennifer, 7, will begin second-grade classes at Franklin Sherman Elementary School. The eldest daughter, Lucinda, 17, graduated from high school last year and is taking a year of postgraduate courses at the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
The two older Robb daughters attended private school before the governor's election, when the family formerly lived in McLean. Robb enrolled them in Richmond's predominantly black public schools in 1982, becoming the first children of a Virginia governor to do so since Linwood Holton escorted his daughter to an integrated city school in 1970.