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Colin Powell Name Sparks Controversy

Residents Are Split Over Name Of New Elementary School

School boundary issues for the new northeast Centreville elementary weren't nearly as contentious as they were for Liberty Middle School, prior to its opening, last September. Instead, something else about this elementary school is dividing the community: The school's name.

And, as often happens with local school controversies, the furor arose at the 11th hour — just two weeks before the Fairfax County School Board is slated to officially select the name. Area residents are split between naming the new school after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell or something recognizing Arrowhead Park near where the school is being built.

"Colin L. Powell is a vital part of American history and is an accomplished leader of the United States and the world," wrote Jacy Yates Hobson of the nearby Willow Ponds community in an April 10 memorandum to the school system's Cluster VII. "As a resident of Fairfax County, [he] represents diversity, academic excellence and achievement."

However, Barbara Waldman of the Woodlands of Fair Lakes feels just as strongly against that name. "Political issues, by their nature, divide communities," she said at the April 10 School Board meeting. "Naming a school after a political figure — and especially a party-affiliated, currently active, political figure whose career continues to be shaped by current and future decisions and events — is unwise."

The new elementary school will open in September in Centreville Farms and will, hopefully, ease overcrowding at several other elementary schools in the area. Being constructed off Route 29 and Stringfellow Road, it will have a 900-student capacity.

The School Board is scheduled to decide its name on April 24 and, in preparation, parents, community representatives, Cluster VII Director Carma Norman, Sully District School Board representative Kathy Smith and Springfield School Board representative Cathy Belter met March 31 at Poplar Tree Elementary.

At that time, 10 names were recommended and considered. Candidates included Heritage, Fair Lakes, Freedom, Glen Ridge and Todd M. Beamer. After presentations, questions and discussions, participants voted for their first, second and third choices of names. "Colin L. Powell Elementary School" came in the winner, with seven first-place votes and 43 votes overall.

The next two most-popular names were Arrowhead and Arrowhead Park. Second-place "Arrowhead Elementary" received six first-place votes and 24 altogether, with third-place "Arrowhead Park Elementary" garnering two first-place votes and 23 total. As a result, Smith and Belter were planning on recommending the top choice, "Colin L. Powell," to their fellow School Board members at last Thursday's (April 10) board meeting.

But because of the controversy, they made no recommendation. However, the board members are still due to present their choice for the new school's name at their April 24 meeting.

In submitting Powell's name to the School Board — reflecting the results of the March 31 meeting and supporting Powell's first-place selection — Hobson listed some of his many achievements. Besides being the 65th secretary of state, he was the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, served 35 years in the military and retired as a four-star general.

Hobson noted that Powell was born and raised in New York City, had immigrant parents and was educated in public schools. He holds several degrees from various colleges and universities and has received numerous U.S. and foreign military awards and decorations.

He was the former chairman of America's Promise — The Alliance for Youth, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to building character and confidence in youth. And although several schools elsewhere have been named in Powell's honor, none of them have been in Fairfax County, where he lives.

However, Waldman — whose children will attend the new school — told the board last week that citizen turnout at the March 31 meeting was low and that, in actuality, many area residents would prefer a name honoring the school's geographic neighbor, Arrowhead Park. She stressed that the park is adjacent to the school, students there will use its athletic fields and the building, itself, is on Arrowhead Park Drive.

Waldman suggested the name, "Arrowhead Park Elementary" at the March 31 meeting; someone else e-mailed the name "Arrowhead Elementary." But, she said, she never imagined that splitting the vote between two nearly identical names would "distort the outcome of the vote." She therefore contends that "the two names are similar enough that a vote for one amounts to a vote for the other."

She pointed out that combining the 24 votes for "Arrowhead" and the 23 for "Arrowhead Park" equal 47 — more than "Powell's" 43 total votes. Also, the two Arrowheads together received eight first-place votes to the seven for Powell.

Saying that a school's name "should not evoke controversy" or "alienate some members of the community" because of its apparent political leanings, Waldman urged the board members to choose a "nice, benign, feel-good name," rather than one which might "further any other agenda."

She also noted that having "Arrowhead" in the name would be in keeping with a school-system regulation stating that, generally, elementary schools here reflect "geographic and historic features of an area." And all of Sully District's current elementaries are so named.

However, a similar case could be made regarding the local middle schools and, there, the policy hasn't always been followed. Since Liberty and Rocky Run are both departures from the school system's general policy of naming middle schools after people, it therefore seems as if the naming regulation is more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule.