As master planner for Stafford County's swelling school system, John David Bondurant is the man behind the maps and the numbers when new schools are opened and the county's districts are reshuffled, the man most responsible for deciding to move kids from one school to another. And because of that, he often feels the need to change his appearance.
"It's fair to say people yell at me. I've had parents in the grocery store make comments to me," said Bondurant, who began changing his hair and facial hair after each redistricting as a way of adding levity -- and anonymity -- to the stressful process that is now an annual occurrence because of Stafford's growth.
But making a change from his current crew cut-and-goatee look might not be enough this year, as Stafford is planning its largest redistricting ever, involving the relocation next fall of more than one-quarter of its 8,000 high school students.
Redistricting drama has been a common tale in Washington's far-flung suburbs in the past 10 years as schools get crowded, more are built and everyone is shuffled in an attempt to keep class sizes small. Rapidly changing counties such as Charles, Loudoun and Prince William sometimes moved the same students repeatedly as new schools opened and school district boundaries shifted, a process Loudoun schools' planner Sam Adamo said brings out "the very worst of man."
But redistricting has been significantly stepped up in Stafford, with the scope broadening and the system revamped this year to accommodate more discerning newcomers, officials said. Groups of residents now join professional county planners to craft redistricting plans, and this week school officials held an informal, open discussion for the first time with a neighborhood association whose members were livid that 87 children in their subdivision would be moved out of the local high school.
While many of Stafford parents' complaints are echoes of those heard throughout exurban Washington -- such as those who say they bought a home in a certain subdivision or neighborhood so their kids could attend a particular school -- Stafford's proximity to Quantico Marine Base has attracted many retired members of the military who thought their transient days were over.
"We kind of made the promise moving here that we'd settle and they could stay in the same school -- that was the big selling point with the kids," said Curt Doescher, a military analyst whose ninth-grader is in her eighth school and does not want to move next year from Colonial Forge High School, where she is a varsity cross-country runner, to North Stafford High School.
Another parent who made the same point triggered a loud, passionate cheer and extended applause Wednesday night, when about 100 people from the Autumn Ridge subdivision packed a middle school cafeteria to voice their displeasure with the proposed plan, announced the week before. "We don't want to keep churning our kids over and over," one ex-military mother said.
The reaction among families in Autumn Ridge, a seven-year-old neighborhood in north Stafford where the average housing price has zoomed from $220,000 to $400,000 in the past four years, has been swift and angry; the homeowners association filed a Freedom of Information Act request for data on the redistricting process and vowed this week to fight the plan to move their children from six-year-old Colonial Forge High School to North Stafford High, one of the older of the county's four high schools.
In addition to the military retiree issue, parents complained that the new process was still "too incestuous," with principals on the committees picking parents and those parents' children as student representatives. They said redistricting hurts student athletes who rely on their places in highly ranked programs to get college scholarships or who are forced to adopt a former rival's team colors.
Wini Ashooh's sophomore son is a wrestler on the highly ranked Colonial Forge team, something she says has become an important, productive part of his identity.
"He's a Forge wrestler, and that's who he is," she said. For him to wrestle for rival North Stafford "creates tension," she told those at the meeting.
Autumn Ridge parents suggested allowing their 87 children to stay put or phasing in the shift -- meaning to have only freshmen move to the new districts -- so children wouldn't have to leave their teachers and friends. Under the normal Stafford redistricting rules, seniors don't have to move.
It's unclear how widespread serious opposition will be. The proposal was just announced, and the first of four public hearings will be held Nov. 1. The School Board will vote on a final plan in December.
Although school officials don't relish the increased tension, they emphasize that something has to be done to relieve crowding. The county's four high schools are all 100 to 200 students over their 1,800-student capacity, and the northern schools are projected to have 2,200 students. A fifth high school, Mountain View, is set to open next fall.
"Parents say, 'How can I determine where my single subdivision goes? Don't take my subdivision; take the one that doesn't care about being moved.' Well, there aren't any that don't care," Bondurant said. "The board is looking for something that benefits the whole county."
Although many parents said they "school shopped" when they moved to Stafford and didn't realize there was a good chance their children's schools might get switched, they are now concerned their children could get shuffled again, when another high school opens in 2007.
Bondurant and School Board member Karen Zink, who represents the Hartwood district, which includes Autumn Ridge, said they would "try" to keep from moving the same kids twice. But if Stafford's population grows the way Loudoun or Charles has, it's very possible those students will be moved again.
"Is moving the same kid twice possible -- are you kidding?" said Adamo, the schools planner in Loudoun, where there are 62 schools, including three to five new ones each year. "We've had some neighborhoods moved four times in five years. It's hard, but what option do you have?"
The problem, he said, is that new residents don't realize that they are the impetus for the problem.
"We have met the enemy, and it be me!" he said. "You've moved here, and you've created this situation, and the schools are responding to that."