- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Bob Griendling is a familiar face around W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County, Va., and he, in turn, appears familiar with its every loose wire, every leak in the roof.

As he walks around the corridors of the aging building with the school's principal, Robert Elliott, children smile and wave, and teachers stop to say hello.

Mr. Griendling has a child at the school, but that's not why he's popular.

Rather, Mr. Griendling and his group, Renovate to Educate the Next Era at Woodson, have become known for their aggressive fight to get funds to fix up schools, like Woodson, that are falling apart.

Woodson, which has around 1,800 students, is atop the list of 49 schools that a private company, hired by the county, found to be in poor shape.

Seventy percent of the county's 202 school buildings and centers are at least 25 years old. Officials estimate it would cost $289 million over the next five years to fix them.

"At a recent School Board meeting, it was pointed out that once a building is over 40 years old, it is too late to even repair it," Mr. Griendling said. Woodson, he said, is already 40 and cannot wait any longer.

Bathrooms have low partitions that offer no privacy. Loose wires dangle from broken panels in the ceiling.

There are no doorknobs on some doors, the roof leaks, there are only two ramps for wheelchairs in the entire building, and students have to work standing up in the computer labs, said Mr. Elliot.

Temperature changes fluctuate so wildly in different rooms at Woodson, Mr. Griendling said, that students are forced to dress in layers throughout the year.

"Children are in danger of catching colds," he said.

Parents formed the group in September, when they discovered that funds for school repairs had been sharply cut.

The renovation group includes parents from schools that feed into Woodson, including Frost Middle School, Canterbury Woods Elementary, Olde Creek Elementary, Little Run Elementary, Mantua Elementary and Wakefield Forest Elementary.

The group has hundreds of supporters in the community surrounding Woodson and many more from other troubled schools are joining them.

"We have 5,800 people on our mailing list," said Margaret Thaxton, a member of the renovation organization.

The handful of parents who run the group say the volunteer work has become almost like a second job.

Mr. Griendling is a writer-editor who works on publications for technology companies. Ellen Oppenheim, the group's president, is a neuropsychologist. Mrs. Thaxton works for the public-schools system.

"We have been working all the time … around dinner tables, late at night … . Now even our children know all about the issues," Mrs. Oppenheim said.

It is hard not to find members at School Board meetings and public hearings in Fairfax County, wearing black T-shirts with the word "RENEW" emblazoned on the front.

At a recent public hearing for the Capital Improvement Plan, as many as 300 supporters of the group attended the meeting, holding up signs and demanding change.

"We want to stand up and be recognized," Mrs. Oppenheim said.

Like Mr. Griendling, most of these parents either already have children at Woodson or at schools that feed into it. They say that by the time all renovations are complete which, by their projections, will be in 2011 their children already will be out of school.

Mrs. Thaxton, the woman who pulled the group together, already has two children in Woodson and says she will not benefit from the renovations when they are made.

She was doing this, she said, "for the community."

"It is the right thing to do," she said.

The public-school system says it has had to cut down on renovation plans because it couldn't raise more than $100 million a year in renovation funds from tax bonds without going so far in debt the county couldn't maintain its low-interest triple-A credit rating.

Some point out that the parents' group is not considering the county's financial problems and problems faced by other aging schools.

"Should we spend all the money we have on Woodson, or spend some on Woodson and some on other schools that need help?" a county school spokesman said.

School Board member at-large Mychele Brickner said that while "it is good for parents to be informative and knowledgeable about the issues," School Board members had to also look at other schools, like Glasgow Middle School.

"Parents there hold two jobs and cannot spend time protesting," she said. Glasgow, also opened 40 years ago, has had several problems in the past. Over the last month, two pipes carrying sewage burst in the school's kitchen.

Mr. Griendling said if the county can't get the money from the bond market, one solution may be to raise the property tax a move that is likely to provoke a backlash from taxpayer groups, which are very active in the county.

"This is the county with the country's highest per-capita income, and our property taxes are among the lowest," Mr. Griendling said.

"At RENEW's last meeting, I spoke of setting up a Web site and immediately two people came over and said they were interested in doing it. That's how involved parents here are," he said.


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