Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which held the honor of America’s top high school in Newsweek’s rankings from 2014-2016, may soon no longer be an option for Loudoun students.
The Loudoun County School Board will vote whether to extend the contract with Fairfax County Public Schools at its May 28 meeting. The board could either vote to discontinue the contract or implement a phased approach. If it decides to halt the contract, the changes would take effect starting in the 2020-2021 school year.
The final decision won’t come easy, as several members wrestled with the decision during the board’s April 23 meeting. Parents of Loudoun students at the school spoke in support of keeping the option open, or at least phasing it out over several years to avoid the worst impacts of the removal, which has “become unsettling for many.”
C.J. Shah, a Brambleton resident who has two sons in the school system, requested the board continue to fund Thomas Jefferson as a STEM option for students in Loudoun. In addition to being ranked so highly, he said the Fairfax school expands the options for Loudoun students, while challenging them to go further. “We owe it to our students,” he said, noting that 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic flows through the county, citing the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development statistic.
Another parent, George Kuriakose, pointed out that Ivy League schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard know the name of Thomas Jefferson High School, adding that “not allowing Loudoun Students would be a loss for all the county’s residents. These families would move to Fairfax or closer to it.”
The details of why the board is considering this action boil down to two primary factors: money and duplication.
Money is a consideration for many reasons. There are 247 Loudoun students attending the Fairfax school this school year at a cost of $3.8 million, and 83 have been accepted into the program for the 2019-2020 school year. The cost includes a $17,681-per-student charge for tuition and capital costs, $2,074 of which is applied to help pay for capital expenditures such as building improvements at Thomas Jefferson, which Loudoun has been paying since the 2014-2015 school year. Without the capital costs, the remaining $15,607 is close to the average cost-per-pupil for students within Loudoun schools at $15,266 per year. However, the charges do not include the transportation costs of getting the students to the school each year, estimated at half a million dollars for FY19 and $540,000 for FY20.
“We knew this day would come when we had to make this tough decision,” said board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn). “There is a cost to maintaining the contract,” he said, adding that the board should instead invest that money toward beefing up STEM education inside Loudoun at the Academies. “I understand it’s hard to change direction on a program, especially one that’s successful, but there are opportunity costs we’re missing.”
The other main concern among board members is the quandary of supporting one of the top schools in the nation that’s outside Loudoun County, vs. dedicating all those resources to programs within the county through the Academy of Science and the Academy of Engineering and Technology.
When the Academies opened, explained board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian), “many people felt it would eventually lead to the end of the need for the contract with TJ.” With lots of needs in Loudoun including new schools, “I firmly believe that now is the time to end that contract,” she added, and let the Academies “be the shining star. We can meet the needs of the students that want to apply to TJ here.”
Other board members objected to what they see as the one-sided nature of the contract. “My understanding is we’re offered a one-year contract because it’s not of our choice, but Fairfax County’s choice,” said Hornberger. A few years back, Fairfax County changed from a longer-term arrangement to a one-year renewal process for the contract. “That’s not our option, because this isn’t our school,” he said.
Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) also took issue with the terms. “We have absolutely zero input on what TJ does,” he said, adding that option costs too much money.
“We have no say in the structure or the curriculum,” added board member Jull Turgeon (Blue Ridge). She said the board should work on making the Academies of Science one of the best schools in the country. “We’re the board of Loudoun County Public Schools—we need to focus our resources here. It’s time to take pride in what we provide.”
Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) argued for keeping the option open, asking members to look at it from the standpoint of opportunities for Loudoun students. The maximum number of children who could attend advanced education programs is around 350, he noted, a number that would drop without Thomas Jefferson in play.
“We could cut out a big chunk of it if we don’t have TJ,” he said, adding that shutting out the program goes against the vision of LCPS. “We’re about opportunities that these families and these children desire,” Morse said. “This is an important venue to keep open access.”
Saying she’s fiscally conservative at heart, board member Chris Croll (Catoctin) remains undecided. She planned to go on a tour of Thomas Jefferson before the next school board meeting to see it up close. “The thing that really bugs me is that it’s easier to get into TJ from Loudoun than it is from Fairfax,” she said.
At Large member Beth Huck wants to see more development with local offerings before cutting off access to Thomas Jefferson, saying that she’s “supportive of an exit plan when we can provide more opportunities for gifted students.”
Board member Joy Maloney (Broad Run) agreed that more opportunities for students are better. “By taking ourselves out of [the contract], we’re just setting ourselves up for people moving out of Loudoun,” she said.
The school board plans to vote on whether to extend the contract at its meeting on Tuesday, May 28. It has until June 1 to notify Fairfax County Public Schools about any modifications. Students already accepted into Thomas Jefferson won’t be impacted by the vote.