Opinion: Commentary: Speaking Truth About Redistricting

Opinion: Commentary: Speaking Truth About Redistricting

School boundary changes can be in the taxpayer, school management, and students’ best interest.

Rumors, confusion, and fears about school redistricting are rampant in this year’s School Board election campaign. For whatever reasons, some seem intent on misrepresenting the situation. Writ large, people resist change they don’t understand and are passionate in defending their children. These misrepresentations seem intent on stoking parents’ emotions through promoting fears of harms to their children’s lives and futures. And, sadly, conversations I’ve had with neighbors and acquaintances indicate these disinformation efforts are having an impact and suggest that stepping back to look at basic realities of redistricting consideration is warranted.

As a small background, for seven years I served on the Fairfax County School Board’s Facilities Planning Advisory Council (FPAC). The School Board formed FPAC a decade ago after the very contentious decision to close Clifton Elementary School. From its start, FPAC has struggled to provide thoughtful advice and perspectives to the FCPS staff and School board about boundary issues.

The truth is that FCPS boundaries are complex, often involve legacy issues from decades ago, and are far from optimum in fiscal, building use, traffic congestion, and student health and performance terms. For years, a standing FPAC joke was that we lock one of our members (a senior State Department facilities planner) in a room for 24 hours with a red pen and he’d come out with a solution to all these problems. That “let the expert be expert” approach, however, simply wouldn’t be practical due to reality that these decisions can involve the lives and passions of thousands of people who will speak up, forcefully, to their elected representatives.

The FPAC sought to help FCPS toward a reasonable approach to redistricting. We had, in shorthand, some basic principles that guided our thinking:

  • Seek to reduce bus transportation: All things being equal, spending more time on buses hurts student health and educational achievement. Can redistricting lead to more walking (going to local schools) and shorter bus rides?

  • Foster continuity: All things being equal, student mental health and educational achievement is stronger when students move through school with people they know.

  • Optimize building use: All things being equal, students perform better with schools “at” (rather below or over) capacity.

As an example, let’s look at the existing McLean High School/Longfellow Middle School and Langley High School/Cooper Middle School. Right now, McLean and Longfellow are overcapacity (with more crowded hallways and students in trailers) while Langley and Cooper at under capacity (with fewer students and resources than what the schools are designed to handle). A major contributor to this situation is one of FCPS’s largest “islands” that sends about 20 percent of Spring Hill Elementary students to McLean/Longfellow rather than to Langley/Cooper, where the vast majority of Spring Hill students go. Addressing that “islanding” answers affirmatively all three of the core principles: better building use; continuity of cohorts; and reduced time on buses. If acted on, the community would have lower costs, reduced traffic on congested streets, and improved outcomes at all four schools. And, students would (writ large) be healthier and have higher educational achievement. While this doesn’t mean that “island” should be washed away, these real benefit streams should be part of the discussion.

Amid the school board race, some are trying to stoke fears that children might be ripped from their schools and bused to the other end of Fairfax. Honestly, I have yet to find any serious player in school planning discussions who advocates anything like this. In fact, I have uniformly encountered thoughtful and informed examination of complicated issues with people striving to come up with paths forward that will serve everyone’s – especially students’ – interests.

We like continuity, fear change, and fiercely want to protect our children. School redistricting discussions hit like a bombshell on these accounts.

Misinformed (if not malicious) rumors are throwing gasoline into the situation and inhibiting moves to solve real challenges. Redistricting can be in the taxpayer, school management, and students’ best interest. Let’s have an honest engagement to foster better use of our tax dollars with happier and more successful students.