For years Loudoun County students with an aptitude in math and science had the option to apply to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a selective secondary school in Fairfax. But thanks to the costs associated with renovating the building, local students may no longer have that option.
Under the new Capital Improvement Program, Thomas Jefferson is set to receive $88.9 million in renovations — and Fairfax wants participating school districts to foot part of the bill.
Thomas Jefferson was founded in 1985 with the goal of improving science, mathematics and technology education. Rather than construct a new facility, the school opened in a previously used high school building from 1964. The school has received only minor renovations, with the most recent repairs coming in 1989.
Since Thomas Jefferson’s inception, the school has been open to the surrounding school divisions of Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties as well as the cities of Arlington and Fairfax.
Fairfax County School Board members reason, if other schools utilize the school, why should they not pay for some of the renovation costs?
“All participating school districts should equally share expenses incurred,” said Ilryong Moon, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board. “The capital costs are part of the education.”
According to Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent in Loudoun County Public Schools, the cost would be $7.8 million, or $50,000 at an average of 157 kids, with payments beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. School boards already pay an out-of-county tuition fee for non-Fairfax students; Ackerman says the sum is generally around $11,000 per head.
About a sixth of Thomas Jefferson’s student population of 1,800 is culled from outside Fairfax County. But with new educational opportunities developing within their own counties, school boards in Loudoun and Prince William are wondering if it’s still cost-effective to export top-students to Fairfax.
“From my perspective, the only reason we’d continue with TJ, given the cost, is if we felt that we could not provide a similar caliber education,” said Bill Fox, a member of the Loudoun County School Board. “And I don’t feel that’s true.”
Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties all offer enrichment programs, with Loudoun boasting the four-year Academy of Science and Prince William and Fauquier offering two-year governor’s schools for upperclassmen.
Fauquier County has decided to sever its relationship with Thomas Jefferson and attributes the decision to cost issues and the presence of its own governor’s school.
“We don’t have any students who were going to attend this year. We had been talking about [cutting ties] as our governor’s school grew. We’ve been thrilled with Mountain Vista Governor’s School,” said Donna Grove, chairman of the Fauquier County School Board.
“And it’s a lot of money,” Grove continued. “When we’re looking to cut everything, that seemed like an easy thing to cut.”
Still, Loudoun School Board members have expressed concern about uprooting students.
“First and foremost, I don’t think any of us [in the school board] are willing to accept an outcome that pulls any students out of TJ,” Fox said. “To pull them out now, when we may not have space at a similar program, is categorically unfair.”
At this point, generating a payment plan is in its early stages and Moon says figures are “rough estimates.” Fairfax has told neighboring school districts they’ll receive an official notice in the spring with charges and possible payment plans.
But Fox says the School Board may have to act quickly, with a two-year enrollment agreement due no later than October.
“We may have to make a decision soon, unless we’re willing to send out another round of acceptance letters this year,” Fox said.