Repelling the Magnet

Repelling the Magnet

School Board members vote against allowing Alexandria students to attend Fairfax County magnet school.

The School Board voted last week to deny giving Alexandria students the opportunity to attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology -- at least for the short term. By a 7 to 2 vote, the board postponed the decision indefinitely, essentially killing the prospect until the board decides to raise it again.

Five area divisions participate in the admissions process for the magnet school: Arlington, Falls Church, Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William. Fairfax County has invited Alexandria to participate, but the School Board's vote last week effectively turned down the offer for now.

After discussing the issue at the last meeting of the board, members seemed to be moving toward offering the choice to Alexandria students. But since that meeting, several School Board members had a change of heart.

<b>"THE LAST TIME</b> we discussed this, I expressed an inclination to vote that we accept invitation," said School Board member Charles Wilson. "However since that time, we've been notified of the $1.2 million that may not be available to us."

Wilson was referring to an April 16 budget memorandum in which City Manager James Hartmann proposed reducing the school's proposed budget by $1,160,000. The city manager's cuts included a $300,000 reduction for new out-of-classroom positions, a $700,000 reduction in the School Supplemental Retirement System and a $160,000 adjustment to account for Virginia funding that was not available when the budget was written.

Hartmann's memo did not mention the expense of sending school children to Thomas Jefferson, which would cost city taxpayers an annual tuition of $10,560 per student.

"We're not really talking about the budget that is currently before the City Council that has been referred to tonight as to which $1.2 million may or may not be available to the school system," said School Board member Mark Eaton. "We're talking about the potential impact in the budget for 2007 and beyond -- should this come to pass."

Eaton, who is chairman of the Curriculum Committee of the School Board, was one of the two members that clearly favored allowing Alexandria students to attend the Fairfax program. He expressed a frustration with School Board members who opposed the program after learning of the potential $1.2 million cuts to the current budget cycle.

"I think an up or down vote on is perfectly appropriate, and I think that to vote to defer the matter on an indefinite basis is -- let's face it -- the same thing as a vote to maintain the current policy," said Eaton. "I think it is a potential mistake to premise what we do here tonight on the basis of the impact on this year's budget because this is not an item that has a budget impact for fiscal 2006."

<b>SEVERAL MEMBERS</b> were concerned about the potential budgetary impact that allowing students to attend the Fairfax school would have on the school's budget. In the end, financial considerations won out -- and the decision was deferred indefinitely.

"We're facing close to a $2 million cut from the city, which is a significant amount of money, and if that indeed comes to pass and we have to reexamine the budget to that degree that's going to require a lot of soul searching and a lot of work," said School Board member Arthur Schmalz. "We can't embrace something that has a significant budgetary impact when we don't even know that our own budget situation is right now."

"This is an important issue, but it is also one of those unusual ones in which the decision is very close to irrevocable if it's made in one way," said School Board member Sally Ann Baynard. "This is costing Arlington $1 million a year to send their students to T.J., and I don't think this is the time to take on an additional $1 million a year commitment -- especially since a decision to [go] back on it will be virtually impossible to make."

<b>MONEY WAS NOT</b> the only issue that board members were concerned about. School Board Vice Chair Mollie Danforth expressed reservations about how the program would be administered, noting that the Alexandria School Board would have little say in future changes to the program.

"I think there are issues about governance with the way T.J. is run and who's in charge of it and who makes decisions about it if other jurisdictions are going to participate," said Danforth. She noted Governor's School models in Stafford and Spotsylvania were built on models in which students participate electronically from their home school or travel to the Governor's School for only part of the day. "I think that we should enter into dialogue with Fairfax about whether that Governor's School that's supposed to be the Governor's School for our region could be changed to allow it to serve more students."

One board member expressed reservations about the impact that opening enrollment to Thomas Jefferson would have on T.C. Williams. Several teachers and students at the Alexandria high school had expressed a fear that the brain drain caused by losing academically gifted students to Fairfax County would create small enrollments in certain courses -- such as Advanced Placement Physics -- that would ultimately be canceled if too few students signed up.

"Our jurisdiction here is unique because we have one high school, and it's not like we have two or three high schools that we could arrange different programs," said School Board member Gwendolyn Lewis. "We need to know what the impact is going to be both monetarily and academically."

<b>TWO MEMBERS</b> -- Eaton and Kenneth Foran -- voted against postponing the decision. At the previous discussion of the issue, both spoke in favor of allowing the choice for local students.

"I too am concerned about financial considerations, however I don't think we should confuse immediate financial considerations -- which are short term -- with the educational needs of our students. Those needs are going to go on; they were here 10 years ago, they'll be here 10 years from now," said Foran. "I think that our job as a board is to speak out in favor of education and to see that all of our students get an opportunity that they need to go out in the world with an education that they need."