Fairfax County school officials got an earful when they met with parents several times last week to hear responses to proposed changes in school attendance boundaries.

"I think this is the craziest thing I've ever seen . . . . This process seems to pit school against school," said Steve Klink, one of hundreds of parents who attended one or more meetings to see how their children would be affected by the most extensive boundary changes proposed in the county in the past several years.

School officials said a principal reason for adjusting the boundaries is to ease projected crowding at some schools. Klink challenged them to explain the logic of a proposal to send about 30 percent of Columbia Elementary School's students to an underenrolled elementary school and replace them with students from a crowded school.

Klink and other parents wanted to know: Why not send students from the crowded school directly to the underenrolled school, and avoid tampering with Columbia's boundaries?

The anger and confusion expressed at the meetings foreshadow the difficult task ahead for school officials, who must juggle the often conflicting considerations of school policies, space limits and community desires when revising school attendance areas.

"We're engaged in a delicate balancing act, having to do things people don't want us to do . . . but from an educational standpoint are highly desirable to do," said James S. Johnson Jr., director of the office of facilities planning services.

The boundary changes proposed so far would affect about 50 of the county's 156 schools, primarily in the eastern and north central parts of the county. The boundary revisions are scheduled for adoption by the School Board in March and will be implemented in phases starting next fall.

Johnson said the objectives of the changes are to ease projected crowding, create attendance areas for two new schools and accommodate the conversion of three intermediate schools inside the Beltway, which have grades seven and eight, into middle schools, which will include sixth-graders as well.

The county intends to convert to middle schools to focus attention on students in the emotionally turbulent years between sixth and eighth grades. Many educators nationwide recommend middle schools.

A secondary objective, Johnson said, is to distribute minority students more evenly among schools wherever feasible.

Attendance at a series of public meetings last week grew nightly as more parents got word about the proposals. The line to the microphone was long as parent after parent raised questions and objections.

"Among the reasons I chose the house I did and the area I did was because of the school," said Jim Kelman, who objected to sending his daughter from Parklawn Elementary to Columbia Elementary under the proposed boundary adjustments.

The proposed changes would "splinter our community," said Linda Rodden, a Columbia parent. "I think you're totally overlooking the community aspects of our schools."

Some parents pointed out that under the proposed boundary changes, the percentage of minority students at many schools would remain virtually unchanged. Others complained about rerouting students to schools where the percentages of disadvantaged and minority students are higher and test scores are lower.

School officials responded that the boundary changes proposed so far are preliminary. "What you have tonight is a series of 'what ifs' . . . to dramatize the issues and trade-offs," Johnson said. When revising the proposals, he said, school officials will consider parents' concerns and practical considerations, such as trying not to bus students, particularly elementary students, for great distances.

About a dozen schools that are not crowded and do not appear to need boundary adjustments, such as Columbia, still might be included in the changes, he said. The purpose of some adjustments is to unify attendance areas. For example, school officials have proposed changing boundaries for Woodburn Elementary School so that all its students could attend the same middle school.

In the case of Columbia, he said, the boundaries for the crowded school are not contiguous with those of the underenrolled school, so school officials decided to involve Columbia, which has boundaries common to each.

Ultimately, Johnson said, school attendance boundaries should be defined by educational considerations. "It {is} not our principal objective to keep people happy."

Dec. 6: School officials present proposals for boundary changes to the School Board. Board schedules public meetings until late February.

Feb. 25, 26: School Board public hearings on the proposals.

March 7: School Board votes on proposed changes.


HIGH SCHOOLS: Annandale, Falls Church, Lake Braddock, Stuart, Woodson.

INTERMEDIATE/MIDDLE SCHOOLS: Centreville, Frost, Glasgow, Holmes, Jackson, Lake Braddock, Lanier, Poe, Rocky Run.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS: Annandale Terrace, Baileys, Beech Tree, Belvedere, Braddock, Bren Mar Park, Columbia, Crossfield, Cunningham Park, Fairhill, Flint Hill, Franconia, Freedom Hill, Glen Forest, Greenbriar East, Greenbriar West, Lees Corner, Louise Archer, Marshall Road, Mosby Woods, Navy, North Springfield, Oak Hill, Oakton, Parklawn, Ravensworth, Shrevewood, Stenwood, Sleepy Hollow, Springfield Estates, Vienna, Wakefield Forest, Westbriar, Weyanoke, Wolftrap, Woodburn.