Fairfax County Public Schools has not conducted a full-scale school boundaries review in about 35 years, and a work session that the Fairfax County School Board held on July 22 to discuss possible changes to the boundary adjustment policy illustrated why officials have been reluctant to tackle the subject.
Dozens of community members, most of them protestors, filled the Gatehouse Administrative Center conference room that the board utilizes for its work sessions. The crowd exceeded the room’s capacity limit of 102 people, leading to a 90-minute delay for staff to set up audio and visual feeds of the meeting in the building’s cafeteria to accommodate the overflow.
In front of an audience that at times emitted audible cheers and grumbles, the 11 present school board members debated a draft policy proposed by FCPS officials to clarify criteria for adjusting boundaries and to reflect the needs of a county whose population has doubled in size since the board last conducted a countywide review of school boundaries in the mid-1980s.
“This has been and continues to be a challenge,” school board chair Karen Corbett Sanders, who represents the Mount Vernon District, said of the boundary adjustment policy. “…It really is something that good governance requires us to do to manage resources and ensure good outcomes for all students.”
Policy 8130, which defines the school board’s authority to determine what schools and programs students are assigned to, was first adopted in 1986 and last revised on May 9, 2013.
Because boundary adjustment discussions are seen as the “third rail” of school board politics, in the words of at-large representative Karen Keys-Gamarra, Fairfax County has largely responded to increased student enrollment in the past by building additions or adding temporary classrooms to overcrowded schools.
The result is a public school system that still uses more than 750 trailers, has a renovation queue with many schools exceeding a 20 to 25-year cycle, and experiences uneven growth throughout the county so that some schools operate well over-capacity while others are below 85 percent capacity, according to the FCPS Capital Improvement Program for Fiscal Years 2020-2024.
While enrollment has not grown as much in the past five years compared to 2008 through 2014, when an average of 3,000 students joined annually, FCPS projects that student membership will continue to increase in the near-future due to the creation of new housing in the county and the completion of the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line.
The school board has approved boundary changes for individual schools and neighborhoods in the past decade, and the FY 2020-24 CIP lists six adjustments as recommended priorities, all of them for elementary schools.
FCPS staff has been conducting a review of Policy 8130 since January 2018 when the school board requested a comparison of Fairfax County’s boundary change practices with policies used by other jurisdictions.
A presentation delivered to the school board at an all-day work session on Oct. 15 notes that, unlike other jurisdictions, Fairfax County does not explicitly prioritize the factors that should be considered during boundary adjustments.
FCPS’s Office of Research and Strategic Improvement presented guidance for boundary changes based on educational research to the school board on Feb. 25, and the school board directed staff to develop a draft boundary adjustment policy on Mar. 11.
The new draft policy presented to the school board establishes a more concrete list of criteria for determining when a boundary adjustment should be made and how it should be redrawn.
FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand called the draft a product of the staff’s “collective thinking” based on their research, which found that overcrowding, socioeconomic diversity, and travel times are the factors that most affect students when it comes to boundary changes.
Under the existing policy, the school board can close a school, change a boundary, or adjust a program assignment or location “to maintain or improve operating efficiency and/or instructional effectiveness,” but the lack of more specific criteria sometimes leads to confusion or inconsistencies in the board’s approach, according to FCPS Facilities and Transportation Services assistant superintendent Jeffrey Platenberg.
The draft policy dictates that previously established school boundaries may be revised to address a capacity surplus or deficit, ensure equitable access to educational opportunities, reflect a school opening or closing, alleviate attendance islands, or accommodate students in the wake of a natural disaster, such as a fire.
At-large school board member Ilryong Moon and Mason District Representative Sandy Evans questioned the inclusion of equitable access as a possible trigger for boundary adjustments, arguing that the issue is more related to programming availability than boundaries.
Providence District Representative Dalia Palchik says that the cost currently makes it infeasible to implement in-demand services like the International Baccalaureate programs in every school, noting that enrollment in IB programs is sometimes closed due to a lack of capacity.
The proposed policy also highlights socioeconomic or racial composition of students, geographic location in relation to the surrounding student population, safety of walking and busing routes, operational efficiency, and attendance islands as factors that can be considered when establishing school boundaries.
Springfield District Representative Elizabeth Schultz argued that looking at the socioeconomic composition of students amounts to “targeting” students based on their identity.
Some community members echoed her sentiments, accusing the board of prioritizing politics over academic needs.
“It's not going to fix the problem. It's just going to mask the problem,” Vinson Palathingal, who is currently running as an at-large school board candidate, said. “…They're just distributing the students and making sure that they are showing better results so that it can be rewarding for the administrators. It's not going to solve the problem.”
The existing Policy 8130 includes “the socioeconomic characteristics of school populations” as a factor that “may be relevant in a particular consolidation, redistricting, or assignment plan.”
Keys-Gamarra disputed Schultz’s interpretation of the draft, saying that it does not recommend race and socioeconomic factors as a reason to change school boundaries. Dranesville District Representative Jane Strauss noted that such issues are important to keep in mind since school boundaries affect the distribution of resources.
The Fairfax County School Board adopted a One Fairfax resolution on Nov. 20, 2017 that requires board members to consider racial and social equity when planning, developing, and implementing policies and practices.
In addition to clarifying the criteria for boundary changes, the draft policy eliminates the use of expedited boundary adjustments, a sped-up process that the superintendent can use in cases of an emergency or “overriding public need” where less than 15 percent of the student population in each school will be affected.
The draft also revises the requirements for an administrative boundary adjustment, tasking the superintendent with making annual boundary adjustment recommendations in cases where an existing boundary may be misaligned with a geographic feature or need minor adjustments due to pipe stems and cul-de-sacs to maintain or improve operating efficiency.
Currently, the superintendent can initiate an administrative boundary adjustment without the school board’s approval if there is an emergency or other public need, new unoccupied housing, or less than 5 percent of the affected schools’ student population will be affected and the change “will improve the operating efficiency of the school division.”
Brabrand told the school board in May 2018 that he was suspending any administrative boundary recommendations for the 2018-2019 school year until the board discusses revisions to “better align boundary decision-making to our One Fairfax policy.”
While expedited boundary adjustments must be approved by the school board, the superintendent only needs to consult the affected board member and hold a community meeting before making a recommendation, whereas a standard adjustment must be presented to the whole board and requires a public hearing.
Removing the option for an expedited process would “increase, not decrease, transparency,” Brabrand says.
Though Corbett Sanders emphasized that the school board does not have any prospective boundary changes in mind related to its review of FCPS’s policy, some community members expressed anger and concern at the possibility of massive changes.
“Property values will plummet,” said Anne Erickson, whose children are FCPS graduates. “People have a right to live where they want to live. People have a right to send their kids and live in a district that they want to live in. They don’t have the right to choose where our kids go to school and bus them all over town. It’s ridiculous.”
FCPS has currently approved 1,340 high school student transfers for the 2019-2020 school year, according to district data. Student requests to transfer to a school outside of their assigned boundary are granted depending on the requested school’s capacity.
More than 20 percent of all bus routes for general education students use 30 minutes or more of travel time with that percentage going up for students in special education, Advanced Academic Placement programs, and magnet schools, according to an FCPS breakdown.
School board at-large candidates Abrar Omeish and Rachna Sizemore Heizer say the school board’s discussion about the boundary adjustment policy is a necessary conversation.
“I think it's really important to base whatever we do on…data-driven best practices,” Heizer said.
Omeish sees debates about boundary changes as a question of what and who the county wants to prioritize.
“Are we going to prioritize ensuring that everyone has a place here, that everyone has the opportunity to thrive, or are we going to reserve that for the few?” Omeish said. “So, we need those bold community conversations that are going to lead us in that direction, as opposed to kind of shying away.”