Four years ago, Reston resident Peter Kendrick was a staunch supporter of Stuart D. Gibson's candidacy for the Hunter Mill seat on the Fairfax School Board.
But this year, Kendrick and several of his neighbors--all onetime Gibson backers--have vowed to do everything they can to see Gibson defeated in his reelection bid. It isn't because of Gibson's philosophy or overall voting record. It's because of a single vote--his vote two years ago in a school boundary dispute.
Kendrick and many others in the Fox Mill Woods subdivision had wanted school attendance zones redrawn so that their children would be assigned to the new Rachel Carson Middle School. Several other Fox Mill Woods parents wanted to stick with Langston Hughes as the neighborhood's middle school.
Gibson's opinion was the one that counted; the rest of the School Board deferred to him as the area's representative. When he eventually agreed with the pro-Hughes group, he infuriated the other group of parents. "We intend to use all our energy and efforts to remove him from office," Kendrick said.
School Board elections are still a novelty in Fairfax County--the election Nov. 2 is only the second in the county's history. But candidates have quickly discovered that school board politics, like all politics, can be intensely local.
Indeed, political analysts say it is likely that narrow issues such as the dispute in Fox Mill Woods, and not broad education themes, will decide many of this year's school board races in Virginia, which passed a law in 1992 allowing its cities and counties to switch from appointed to elected boards.
"A change in a school boundary has an impact on two of the most important things in a parent's life--their children's education and their own economic condition," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, noting that pupil reassignments often affect home prices. "So it's not surprising that a neighborhood faced with a decision that goes against its will mobilizes against the politician that made the decision."
The anti-Gibson activists in Kendrick's group consist of only about 20 people. But they have distributed hundreds of yard signs and brochures on behalf of Gibson's opponent, Thomas A. Wilkins, and organized volunteers to blanket local shopping centers.
The group working against Gibson includes Jay Myerson, general counsel to the state Democratic Party--even though Gibson is running with the Democratic endorsement and Wilkins is backed by the Republican Party.
Gibson says he's not worried about the enduring resentments over his role in the boundary dispute. "I don't believe that there are a dozen families in this community, let alone more, who believe a four-year record should be ignored based on one vote," he said, adding that it was impossible to resolve the neighborhood dispute to everyone's satisfaction.
Privately, however, some Gibson supporters say they are concerned that in a campaign where broad issues have not sparked voters' interest, the bitterness in Fox Mill Woods could have an impact.
Wilkins is downplaying the issue in his campaign and focusing instead on subjects such as school crowding and accountability.
The debate over which middle school the children of Fox Mill Woods should attend was so intense that some neighbors no longer speak to each other.
"I lost a friend of several years, and my children have lost friends due to the fact that their parents wouldn't allow them to play together anymore," said Jan Coffinberger, who supported Gibson's decision to retain Hughes as the neighborhood school. "I hope that some day we can walk down the streets in my neighborhood and say hello to each other and be civil to each other again."
The Fox Mill Woods "civil war," as some have labeled it, erupted in October 1997 as the School Board began the process of drawing attendance boundaries for Carson Middle School in Herndon.
Parents such as Coffinberger said it made sense for the neighborhood's children to continue going to Hughes Middle and South Lakes High, both in Reston. Although the 240 homes in Fox Mill Woods are outside the boundaries of the Reston Association, they have Reston mailing addresses and most of the children play Reston youth sports.
Parents on the other side said that if the children went to Hughes, they would be separated from most of their former classmates at Crossfield Elementary, who were being assigned to Carson. Carson feeds into Oakton High, located in Vienna.
School administrators, noting that both sides had good arguments, said they would agree to recommend whichever plan a majority of the community could agree on.
But the community couldn't reach a consensus. Instead, the dispute got worse. Some parents who favored Hughes, a more racially diverse school than Carson, said race and elitism were underlying factors in the other side's position, which pro-Carson parents denied.
Gibson said he had told both sides from the beginning that if they could not reach an agreement, he would make the decision for them. In the end, he said, he believed that the children's interests would be best served by leaving them in Reston schools.
Gibson's critics say he should have tried harder to bring the two sides together.
"We went to Stu Gibson and asked him to help us come up with a solution that would save our neighborhood. And he said, 'No, I will decide what's best for your neighborhood,' " said resident Barbara Lowry, who is now home-schooling her daughter.
Gibson's supporters say that the parents working against him are being vindictive. Many of those parents managed to get their children transferred to Carson anyway, and some of them have older children who aren't affected.
"You're talking about a handful of people who want their way and are willing to do anything to get it," said Steven Kussmann, who supports Gibson. "Most of us have moved on and are quite content. It has really turned into an absurd situation."