The Grand Old Party routinely wins state and national elections by double-digit margins in Stafford County, so a small group of local Republicans hardly thought it would create controversy with a proposal to name a new high school after former president Ronald Reagan.
Instead, the possibility that Stafford's fifth high school could be on the very short list of schools in the country -- and the only one in the Washington area -- named after the conservative icon has tapped a growing divide as the Republican grip on local politics loosens. The GOP lost its majority on the Board of Supervisors in 2001 for the first time in many years in Stafford, where the political effects of a population boom aren't yet clear.
A School Board hearing on the proposal last month brought out an unusually large crowd of more than 30 speakers, with GOP activists handing out talking points and Reagan buttons and threatening board members if they vote against the name later this month.
Voters could well take note of School Board members who oppose the Reagan name in the same way they made note of which officials increased taxes, said Steven Apicella, chairman of the Stafford Republican Party. When Republicans see that board members "aren't advancing GOP values, they are going to wonder if they want to support this person in the future," he said. The local party endorsed six of the seven School Board members.
Opponents said politics shouldn't figure in the naming of a school. Some would prefer a name honoring an all-black school that stood near the new school's site when the county was segregated.
"The local Republican Party is very, very tenacious, and I want my kid to grow up in an environment that's not so hostile," said Dan Smolen, an executive recruiter. "If you're new to this community, you'd think it's very Republican, but my feeling is it's very moderate. And therefore naming a school after Ronald Reagan becomes very divisive."
There are 61 public and private sites dedicated to the late president in the United States, according to the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which works to establish visible tributes to him. There are at least six public schools named after him: in Arizona, California, Idaho, Illinois and Texas. In Loudoun County, a proposal to name a public site -- a school, road or park -- for Reagan was met by mostly naysayers at a hearing last month.
The Stafford debate should end with the School Board's vote Sept. 14. A name selection committee has recommended that the school, scheduled to open next year, be called Mountain View High School, a reference to a local road and a neighborhood.
People on both sides say the debate has become unusually unpleasant for Stafford politics, which they say has become more partisan in recent years. But Stafford is still the kind of place where a Reagan advocate felt bad enough about noting that no mountains are visible from Mountain View Road to ask that the comment be off the record.
The committee made its recommendation following official guidelines that call for naming high schools after the nearest street or district.
"We're very traditional around here, and there's the 'This is how we've always done it,' " said John Van Hoy, a geologist who ran the local GOP from 1988 to 2001. "If I hear that one more time, I'll pull my hair out."
But Stafford politics is changing with its population. In addition to being the 17th-fastest-growing county in the country, with a large influx of families and retirees from the Washington area, the proximity of Quantico Marine Base means that as many as 25 percent of registered voters every four years are new to the area. The results lately have been mixed: a heavily Republican School Board but a Board of Supervisors evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, with one independent.
"We have lost ground on local races," Van Hoy said.
Most board members did not return calls asking how they intend to vote, although two -- Robert S. Belman and Robert P. Hunt -- are outspoken advocates of the Reagan name. Belman said he thinks that convention rather than politics might ultimately lead the board to go with the geographical name but that Stafford is missing a chance to raise the county's profile.
"I would have a hard time believing there aren't conservative groups or Reagan Legacy groups that would give some sort of funding. And you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that there aren't teachers across this country who wouldn't want to teach in a school named Ronald Reagan. If any of these things give an edge to our students, then I'm not prepared not to do it," Belman said.
At the Aug. 24 hearing, speakers were split about evenly over the Reagan name. Among those against the name selection committee's recommendation was Mark Dudenhefer, who lost his 17-year-old daughter in January in a crash on Mountain View Road and said it would be painful for his family to have to hear the name constantly.
Even if Mountain View High opens next year instead of Ronald Reagan High, there will be plenty of opportunity to have this discussion again.
If trends remain constant -- the county population is growing nearly 6 percent a year, and student enrollment is increasing nearly 5 percent annually -- county planners predict that Stafford will have to build 15 more schools by 2020.