Community wishes, due process, fair and transparent government were all trampled by the Fairfax County School Board when it hastily voted 9-2 on July 8 to close a beloved school that has bonded generations together in the historic town of Clifton.
The board's June 29 work session agenda stated that its decision to close or renovate Clifton Elementary would be based on three issues: "The reliability of the water supply, declining enrollment and renovation costs. ..." Fair enough. But when community members contradicted FCPS staff on each of these three criteria, they were ignored.
The school district's chief operating officer, Dean Tistadt -- who once had a citizen forcibly removed from a public redistricting hearing for videotaping the proceedings -- again demonstrated his scorn for democracy by withholding the results of a study clearing the school's well water until 12 minutes after the start of the July 8 meeting -- in violation of the board's own strategic governance guidelines.
And FCPS used just one ZIP code (20124) to predict declining enrollment even though two others in Clifton's enrollment area (22032 and 22039) contained higher student densities. Board member Martina Hone, at large, said that her "discomfort with staff data" was one reason she voted against closure. In more than two years on the board, she added, "I have not seen it right yet."
Also not published was a revision made at the board's regular June 10 meeting to "close Clifton Elementary School upon completion of the new elementary school" at the Liberty Middle School site. That idea was dropped like a hot potato when community members pointed out that, contrary to Tistadt's testimony, the area was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos.
That left renovation costs. FCPS claimed that renovating Clifton Elementary would cost "50 percent more" than average. Last year, this same school system was willing to spend $130 million on an administration building, but balked at spending $11 million to refurbish a school that has been in the renovation queue for two decades.
Clifton parents told me that when they took out the unneeded repairs to the school's water system and scaled back from a "gold" to a "silver" standard, renovation costs were reduced to below average. And that didn't take into account possible grants from state and federal historic preservation groups that have expressed interest in preserving the school.
To make matters worse, board members voted to close this top-performing historic school without making provision for its 374 students, telling anxious parents that they would figure that out later. No wonder angry community members screamed, "You lie! You do not represent us!" at board member Liz Bradsher, Springfield, whose district includes Clifton Elementary.
Fairfax Education Coalition communications director Catherine Lorenze said that Bradsher called her up early one morning after the vote, vowing to "cripple you and FEC at the knees."
Bradsher denies making any such threats, claiming that she merely "urged her to get her facts straight. ... We spent over a year on this issue, and we had the facts. ... I was one of nine [who voted to close the school]. I stand firmly by my vote."
But Clifton parent Elizabeth Schultz, infuriated by the board's "whack-a-mole" strategy, points out that "all the evidence the community provided was summarily ignored. Liz sold out one community to appease another."
So as a lesson in accountability, FEC -- an umbrella group representing 40,000 parents and teachers -- has made Bradsher's defeat its top priority.
Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.