School Board Keeps TJ, Cuts Costs

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.

aparker@loudounnow.com

5 thoughts on “School Board Keeps TJ, Cuts Costs

  • 2019-05-29 at 6:35 am
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    What happened to offering the first two year program of AOS to ALL high schools in Loudoun so more of our math and science advanced students can benefit from this compressed and inquiry based curriculum. This adds NO COST to LCPS and all high schools are already equipped for the associated labs needed for the first two years of AOS.
    The conclusion that an itemized financial comparison of the costs of TJ to LCPS (AOS Program) is not credible. I don’t need to have my MBA in finance or have the experience of chairing the finance committee for most of my 8 years on the school board to know there is far more than $2k per year per AOS student in capital which is not included in the LCPS number and is included in the TJ number. Even the operating costs for an AOS student is well above the average LCPS student as they have significantly lower class sizes. I believe current school board members should know these things if they are honestly evaluating the Superintendent’s obvious pro-Loudoun school preferences rather than going along to get along.
    Not providing transportation for “OUR” students who attend TJ is cruel as it will tempt these students who are already exhausted from the program to join together and drive themselves. Which board member is going to personally attend a funeral caused by such an accident and apologize for wasting money on turf fields at the same time taking away the safety of a bus? As the independent chair of the BOS I will put on the agenda for full BOS approval LCPS efficiency and fairness metrics that truly reinforce the countywide primary belief that public schools should be about the children and that they are learning in a safe environment even if they are learning at TJ.

  • 2019-05-29 at 10:34 am
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    Renss does a better job than most at reporting facts but the only ones quoted are false cost estimates of TJ. Here are the real numbers:

    1. Fairfax charges LCPS their true cost to educate kids at TJ including capital costs and extra lab costs. Overall, it’s about $17-19K/year including transportation.

    2. To educate those kids in Loudoun, it costs about $17K ($15,240 for operating per pupil costs and $2K+ for the capital costs).

    3. To send any student to the ACL (with its Taj Mahal building that doesn’t add to the value of the education), it costs taxpayers at least $21K/year.

    So TJ is a better bargain compared to Loudoun’s own expensive STEM program. TJ also provides more advanced classes and doesn’t require an 8th grader to commit to 4 years of lab-based research when they don’t know what they want to do. The total extra cost of sending 250 kids to TJ is $500K/year. That equals 0.67% of the $75M in raises this SB gave to teachers this past year including at least 3 with spouses set to receive those raises. Note that LCPS has the lowest vacancy and attrition rates in the state with 6000 qualified applicants seeking to fill/replace 700 job openings and replace existing teachers. There was no need to give out 10-14% raises ($5-8K per teacher) and definitely no need to cut TJ spots when the SB is throwing money on teachers aimlessly.

    Voters should require the school board to put out accurate cost estimates like Fairfax did. Or when LCPS officials lie and say they only need $5900 to educate a “returning TJ student”, the voters and BOS should hold them to their word and only give them $5900 for each new student as opposed to the $15,240 they ask for at budget time. The era of lies at LCPS should come to an end.

  • 2019-05-29 at 3:30 pm
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    What happens to the transportation for the kids that are going their for 3 more years? Will their transportation be pulled out from under them? Will they continue to get transportation while new students have to provide their own way? This seems like a strange compromise because Fairfax decides how many Loudoun kids get to go to TJ, not Loudoun. Also, the next school board, which will have at least 4 new members, could reverse all of this. Why doesn’t Fairfax go to a 4 year plan instead of this every year renewal stuff. Either we go to TJ or we don’t.

  • 2019-05-29 at 3:49 pm
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    Not sure why everyone is complaining about this. People who really want to go to TJ, have an option to move to Fairfax county anyway.

  • 2019-06-01 at 10:43 am
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    Attention Freeloaders: If you want your student to go to school in Fairfax County, then you need to move to Fairfax County. It is ridiculous that Loudoun County taxpayers have provided a school for kids that “must have” enhanced learning opportunities in Loudoun County and will continue to offer the option and pay for LCPS to go to TJ. Why is the desire for LCPS students to go to TJ the financial responsibility of Loudoun County taxpayers? When I wanted my children to have the benefits of a full-day kindergarten program and it was not an option in Loudoun County at the time, I paid that tuition bill. I would NEVER have the nerve to ask fellow Loudoun residents to pay my children’s tuition in another county.

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