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For more than a year, Loudoun County School Board members have debated the merits of paying Fairfax County to send students to the region’s governor’s school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The tenuous partnership between Loudoun and Fairfax, which owns and operates Thomas Jefferson, hit another snag June 28, when–at the request of Loudoun officials—Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) issued a legal opinion regarding the school’s future.

The attorney general’s opinion states that payment for maintaining and improving school property falls to the jurisdiction owning and operating the facility.

The opinion comes as construction to renovate Thomas Jefferson, commonly referred to as TJ, begins. TJ is undergoing a $67.44 million renovation, which includes new labs and classrooms supporting STEM research fields. The school, which was converted from a regular high school into a regional magnet in 1985, has never received a major renovation. The renovation project should be completed near the end of 2016, school officials said.

Currently, Arlington, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and the City of Falls Church pay tuition for their students who attend TJ. City of Fairfax students also attend TJ, but the city already pays Fairfax County Public Schools to run its schools.

Alexandria City recently expressed interest in adding its students to TJ’s enrollment. The city has until September to share its plans with FCPS.

In April, Fairfax County School Board members began discussing sharing the renovation cost burden with other jurisdictions using the facility.

“We are bearing the cost on this,” said School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) during that April meeting. “We’re bearing the risks on signing of contracts. It’s affecting Fairfax County’s bond rating. We’re obviously disproportionately carrying the burden. When are we going to get to a decision point on recuperating the costs?”

According to the attorney general’s opinion, “The [state] statute vests the responsibility for maintenance and improvements of school property in the board that has authority in the locality in which a given facility is located.” Similarly, Cuccinelli writes, “Virginia’s school tuition statute … specifically excludes capital outlays and debt service from inclusion in tuition between school divisions unless the school boards have fixed tuition by contract.”

The attorney general’s opinion was requested by Del. Joe T. May (R-Dist. 33) of western Loudoun. May said he requested the opinion after being approached by Loudoun County School Board members. Only state elected officials can request an official opinion.

“The attorney general’s opinion did not come as a surprise,” May said. “The Loudoun people, as well as sending its students to Thomas Jefferson, have also been going on to create its own STEM programs [locally]… So the new question is whether Loudoun County is far enough along with its own STEM programs to leave TJ?”

Loudoun County School Board members have argued that their school system is far enough along to abandon the partnership, especially if the tuition-to-Fairfax County increases.

“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. And I don’t feel that’s true,” Loudoun County School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg District) is quoted saying in a Loudoun Times-Mirror article from February this year.

Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman Wayde Byard said Tuesday, “Right now we’re asking for a clarification on the attorney general’s opinion concerning TJ. So, there’s really been no decision on our part. The School Board does not meet again until mid-August; so there will be no official action until then.”

Fairfax County Public School officials are also reviewing the attorney general’s opinion, said schools spokesman John Torre.

“We obviously disagree with the opinion and we are analyzing it to decide next steps going forward,” he said. “The legal counsel [for the school system], School Board members and the new superintendent [who took office July 1] will all weigh in.”

Implementation of a fee structure on out-of-county students attending TJ is still more than a year away, Torre said.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com