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Biotech Magnet School?

Institute announces aid for schools; tax exemption controversy continues.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute's announcement last week to donate at least $1 million a year to the county's public schools occurred against the backdrop of a larger debate about the costs and benefits of the new research facility.

The grant, to fund science education initiatives, comes in conjunction with the construction of the Institute's $500 million Janelia Farm Research Company on Route 7.

Controversy centers around the $6 million property tax exemption granted to the institute in November 2003. According to Bruce Tulloch, vice chairman of the current Board of Supervisors, the previous board approved the tax exemption "at a last, lame duck session" when five of the voting members had already been voted out of office. The institute's application was timed to take advantage of the board turnover, he said.

The new board, elected in November 2003, was to take office Jan. 1, 2004. Voting to grant tax exemption to the institute was one of the last decisions of the old board at its final Dec. 15 meeting.

The institute's vice-president for communications and public affairs, Avice Meehan, said that the institute aimed only to beat the "tax clock." Saying that taxes on the new site would begin accruing on Jan. 1, 2004, the same day the New Board was to take office, Meehan said any speculation about the intention of the timing is a "matter of opinion."

CURRENT BOARD members are waiting for an answer from the Attorney General of the Commonwealth about the legality of overturning the tax exemption decision. Tulloch said the board will continue to explore options and discussions with the institute regardless of the Attorney General's reply.

Board of Supervisors chairman Scott York said that revoking the tax exemption would "not send the message we want to send to anybody who would want to locate their business in Loudoun County."

"Why come to Loudoun County if they can't keep their word?" he asked.

Meehan says that the federal government grants the nonprofit tax exempt status despite its $11 billion endowment because investment in scientific facilities is disproportionately expensive.

"A nonprofit like HHMI is making a greater investment than a commercial outfit would," she said. According to Meehan, spending the same money on commercial real estate would be equivalent to erecting 36 office buildings.

All parties disagree over the larger economic implications for the county. Meehan says the tax exemption is only partial, and certain parts of the site will still generate tax revenue. The institute will also contribute $150,000 a year to the county fire, health, and rescue services and finish construction work on Riverside Parkway that was promised by the site's former owners.

York said the institute will act as a "magnet" for other biotech firms to locate to Loudoun County.

Tulloch said he is waiting for proof of that and said that the tax exemption should have been phased in to maintain economic balance during the transition period.

"Anytime that you have income-producing property that you exempt a corporation from paying taxes on, it increases the tax rate. It's simple math," said Tulloch.

THE TAX BREAKS will not kick in all at once, but rather will increase steadily until reaching the full $6 million mark with the facility's opening in 2006. Tulloch noted that adding one penny to the current tax rate would generate $5.5 million dollars in income.

Whatever the long-term economic consequences, all parties agree that the educational benefits will be immeasurable.

The million dollar grant to Loudoun County Public Schools came after a year of discussions and focus group sessions with school officials and teachers that identified science education needs. According to Meehan, the new programs will begin this year with $400,000 in spending toward middle school programs and college scholarships.

Scholarship committees at each of the seven county high schools will choose two high school seniors who demonstrate academic achievement, interest in science, and financial need to receive a $7000 scholarship toward college education costs. The number of scholarships awarded will increase proportionally as more high schools are built in the county.

The institute's grant will also pay for a two-week Middle School Summer Science Institute in June. Thirty six middle school teachers, one from each grade in each middle school in the district will work with a team of experts led by one of the institute's former program directors, Dr. Keith Verner, to develop a more effective, hands-on middle school science curriculum for the entire county.

"There is a high degree of interest in science up until the middle school grades, and then it falls off. One of the factors contributing to that is the way it's taught," said Meehan.

"Anything that we develop for the middle school we can move up to the high school and down to the elementary school," said Peter Bruns, vice-president for grants and special programs at the Institute. "I think we have such a unique opportunity here that this will be a national model."

THE OTHER $600,000 will be used towards the creation of a new biotechnology magnet school with room for 250 students in a wing of Dominion High School in Sterling. Since the current plan envisions that students will continue to take classes at their original high schools, attending the academy two days a week, 500 students could potentially participate in the program.

"We built the high school larger to begin with, with the thought of incorporating a magnet school or academy," said School Board chairman John Andrews.

Anticipating the arrival of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute made him push for a biotechnology theme for the proposed academy.

"Hughes will bring cutting edge technology, and the school staff will bring the educational component and experience working with young adults," said Andrews.

"I think the opportunities from an educational standpoint are going to be a tremendous asset to the students as well as to the teachers who are in the program," said York.

TEACHERS like Denise Wingfield, who teaches Advanced Placement Biology at Dominion, agree. Last year, one of her students wanted to analyze mitochondrial DNA to determine whether the Native American tribes in Virginia evolved from a single common ancestral tribe. Early on, she said, it became clear that funds and equipment would be insufficient to complete the project.

"This will allow us to take kids' research interests and allow them to do what they want to do," said Wingfield.

Andrews estimated that the new Academy will open in fall 2005 or 2006. The institute has already committed $100,000 to hire and pay a coordinator who will facilitate organization of the curriculum, structure, and criteria for admission at the new academy. Planning will commence immediately after the coordinator is hired in the next few months, and Bruns and others have already activated the HHMI network of science educator grantees to solicit ideas and suggestions.

The institute also has plans for a national center for science education that could possibly be located in Loudoun County.