The Loudoun County School Board voted 6-3 on Tuesday night to renew a contract that allows Loudoun students to attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria.
But the night didn’t end without sacrifices for TJ supporters, as a divided board voted to stop using taxpayer money to pay for transportation costs, and to cap the number of students sent to the Fairfax school.
With the Academies of Loudoun now open, school board members have been debating whether to cut ties with TJ—a STEM magnet school that is among most highly regarded high schools in the country.
More than 75 students, parents and supporters of keeping the TJ option spoke during the board’s Tuesday meeting, adding to more than 60 speakers in favor of keeping TJ during the board’s May 14 meeting. TJ supporters also presented a petition with more than 1,700 signatures to the board. The majority of speakers at Tuesday’s meeting were students, including past, current and hopeful future attendees of TJ. One speaker was only in the second grade.
“This isn’t about the kids at TJ. This is about the kids that want to go to TJ, and there’s thousands of us,” said Aubrey Powers, a rising eighth grader at Smart’s Mill who has worked hard to get a chance to get a STEM education. “TJ is our dream. Please don’t crush it,” added Sathvik Redrotha, a seventh grader.
Following the public comments, board member Chris Croll (Catoctin) proposed two amendments. The first was to eliminate transportation costs. On a Facebook post over the weekend where she first mentioned her suggested changes, Croll wrote that she tried to “find a compromise position where we still make this program available to the students who require it … but to make LCPS costs for TJ more predictable and more ‘reasonable’ since many people in Loudoun County believe the cost of sending these students out of county are too high.”
Under Croll’s plan, the school system would save $2.2 million over four years by paying to transport Loudoun students to the Fairfax school. She compared busing TJ students to the 3,000 students in the Special Permission program, where parents can request their children attend a different school than where their home is based. “If your child gets accepted at TJ, you will find a way to get them there,” Croll said, adding that only 0.8% of the Loudoun students who attend TJ are “economically disadvantaged” according to a staff report.
Board members who voted against that change said removing the transportation represents an equity issue. Joy Maloney (Broad Run) has advocated expanding transportation services to students with special permission to attend other schools and to those seeking to enroll in ROTC programs. Maloney also supported a parent of a western Loudoun student who attends TJ, noting that removing the transportation costs would impact those students differently.
Croll’s other amendment, which passed 5-4, limits the number of TJ students from Loudoun at 50 per year, or 200 in the school at any given time. This would make the costs to Loudoun more predictable and fixed, she said. The county would save $1.6 million over the course of four years by capping enrollment at 50 students. Croll said the total $3.8 million between the transportation costs and the 50 cap represents “a significant cost avoidance without closing the door to this educational program for the kids who need it most.”
This year, there are 247 Loudoun students attending, and 83 already accepted for next year’s class. The 50-student cap would kick in for the 2020-21 school year.
A true cost comparison of sending students to TJ versus the new Academies of Loudoun programs has been tough to secure. While the cost per pupil across the school district is $15,241 and the figure is $17,169 for TJ, board members and staff said the figures do not represent an apples-to-apples comparison.
“The whole idea of cost per pupil doesn’t make any sense. That’s not how we budget,” said Eric Hornberger (Ashburn).
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said he supported cost reductions, but doesn’t understand why the board would cap enrollment at 50. “As far as I’m concerned, I would like to increase our opportunities for gifted children in our county,” he said.
Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) said that the reductions in transportation and the number of students represent a compromise. “There are people out there who may not have shown up but said they do not support us sending our tax dollars to Fairfax County,” he said.
Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) reminded board members that the TJ discussion has been ongoing since before the academies were built. “This is not a new conversation,” she said, noting that she supported ending the contract in her role as a “fiscal steward” of taxpayer dollars.
School board members Eric Hornberger, Debbie Rose (Algonkian) and Turgeon voted against renewing the contract. Joining Croll in passing the two amendments were board members Hornberger, Marshall, Rose and Turgeon.