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Fairfax County Ponders Redistricting As New Tactic in Impact-Aid Battle

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Arlington, Va--As part of its struggle with the federal government over cuts in impact aid, the Fairfax County School board scheduled a meeting late last week to consider a proposal requesting the Virginia State Board of Education to designate the Fort Belvoir military base an independent school district.

John P. Hess, assistant superintendent for financial services in the district and an originator of the proposal, said there was no way to predict whether the board would pass it.

Under the proposal, the state board would redraw the boundaries of school districts in Fairfax County to separate Ft. Belvoir from the Fairfax system of which it is now part.

The proposal also offers three alternatives to shifting school-district lines. These include assessing tuition charges against parents of military dependents (an option currently being contested in a lawsuit against the district); delaying action until Congress completes distribution of impact aid for fiscal year 1982; and having the federal government operate the Ft. Belvoir schools under a provision of the impact-aid legislation for schools on military property.

"We also had the option of simply not opening the doors," said Mr. Hess. "But we were very concerned that we not have another Little Rock."

Mention of the redistricting plan came at the fall conference of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, a group that organizes the lobbying efforts of about 1,000 school districts that receive federal impact aid.

One purpose of the conference was to discuss various ways to combat impact-aid cuts. The Fairfax case is being watched closely by officials in other districts that are considering similar measures.

The move to change district boundaries would be the latest in the struggle among the the Fairfax district, the Department of Defense, and the Justice Department over who is to pay the cost of educating children of military dependents in the district.

Impact aid to Fairfax County is used primarily to offset the cost of educating 1,570 children whose families live on the Ft. Belvoir base. Because of large-scale cuts in impact aid proposed by the Reagan Administration and incorporated into the budget "reconciliation" bill last summer, the district announced this fall that it would assess the military-base parents' fees for educating their children.

A Virginia law permits districts to charge tuition if they do not receive in impact aid at least 50 percent of the cost of educating children who live on federal property.

Fairfax school officials estimate that the tuition charges could range from $1,300 for kindergartners to $3,700 for high-school students. But the district has not yet assessed tuition charges.

"We told parents, 'When school starts on Sept. 9, we're going to start the tuition meter running'," Mr. Hess said. "However, we're not going to send a bill for tuition until Congress finishes its action on impact aid."

When that will be is not clear. Currently, Congress--in action that could reduce impact aid even below the level set in the budget "reconciliation" bill--is weighing two different appropriation figures and formulas for calculating how much impact aid districts are eligible for in fiscal 1982.

Ceiling Recommended

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to cut the program from its 1981 level of $756 million to $475 million in fiscal year 1982. The Senate has recommended a ceiling of $455 million.

And any budget action is still subject to Presidential veto. The Reagan Administration has recommended that Congress allocate only $352 million for the program this year.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has filed suit against the Fairfax district and the Commonwealth of Virginia to bar the district from charging tuition.

The government, which filed suit Oct. 30 in Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., contends in part that tuition charges would violate a federal law prohibiting the taxation of military families in more than one state. The government also charges that such fees would violate the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Breach-of-Contract

It also argues that charging tuition would constitute a breach-of-contract by the Fairfax district, since it previously agreed to operate the base schools.

But the school district's attorney has said there is no legal governmental relationship between the the base and the county.

James W. Maza, chief lobbyist for the national impact-aid organization, characterized last week's meeting of the group as a learning session in "guerrilla tactics."

"What we're showing here is the outlines of a guerrilla campaign," Mr. Maza said. "When you fight a guerrilla campaign, there's no end to the things you can shoot at."

He said the meeting was called "to say to the government that if they welch on their bets and don't pay their debts, we'll retaliate at least in terms of creating enough nuisance to make theirs an untenable position."

Association members heard hints of further lawsuits from Don Bruno, superintendent of the York County, Va., schools.

"We may take a little different bent in the next 30 days with the federal government," he said. "We may not let the federal government come to us with a suit. You may see a suit that goes the other way.

"We have also looked at the option of denying service," he added. ''What that would mean in terms of bringing in the state police to enforce the state law.... We would expect some violent type of reactions.''

Association members in California told of a plan to introduce legis-lation to eliminate a $1,000 exemption from state income tax for military personnel. Another participant reported on a law in Delaware that bars districts from using state and local revenues to educate children who live on federal property.

'Impacted' Districts

A representative from North Carolina, another state that has passed a law allowing some form of tuition charges, said the state's five most heavily "impacted" districts had agreed to start charging tuition Dec. 1 if the impact aid is not forthcoming from the government. Ann Brooks of the Defense Department's office of governmental affairs said of the Fairfax suit that "this is a conflict that has to be worked out between the federal government and the state and local government, and we found it very inappropriate that the military individual be held responsible for the tuition bill."

"Hopefully," Mr. Maza said, "this new federalism means a chance to participate in the political discussion with a little bit of shoving and pushing back."

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