One in a series of interviews with departing Fairfax County School Board members.
From the late 1980s through about 2004, students in Elizabeth Bradsher's area of Fairfax County were bused across Route 123 to West Springfield and Hayfield high schools, miles from their homes.
"They saw this community that had no voice … was underdeveloped, and they moved them to a school far outside their community," she said. "I didn't want that to happen to any other community again because what happens to one community has a trickle down effect."
The issue was what, in part, sparked Bradsher's run for the Springfield District school board seat in 2007. After working as an advocate in the South County community, the adjustment to elected official wasn't easy, she said.
"No longer was I an advocate for just a particular community," Bradsher said. "When you take that oath of office it's not just for your district but the entire county and that was kind of sobering to realize there were a lot of people counting on you."
One of Bradsher's largest accomplishments was creating the Fairfax County Facilities Planning Advisory Council, a group of 13 county residents who develop and update annually a long-term strategic planning process for FCPS facilities.
The idea was to eliminate the perception of bias in boundary changes.
"There are real, severe reasons that boundary changes are done or not done. And it's not about who has the most money or who can cry the loudest. That's not fair," Bradsher said.
One of the groups that cried the loudest while Bradsher was in office was Save Clifton Elementary School, a group that organized to stop the closing of the "community school" in Bradsher's district.
The elementary school ultimately closed June 30 — a decision Bradsher and several other school board members called difficult.
Resident Jill Hill filed a lawsuit to make public Fairfax County School Board member emails about the decision, arguing the messages leading up to a July 2010 meeting violated the Freedom of Information Act. Fairfax County Circuit Court initially ruled in favor of the school district, but the Virginia Supreme Court decided last week to grant an appeal to Hill.
Hill's group named Bradsher as the ringleader in closing the school, saying FCPS claims of declining enrollment, high maintenance costs and contamination issues were not large enough to shut the school down all together.
Bradsher says the group's singular focus on her was unfair. She says all three were real issues, and, closing the school was the best choice she could have made for the students.
"It was an issue of capital dollars and declining enrollment in an area that was not going to see any growth. [It] had far more needs than typical buildings in our system so we were looking at it from dollars and sense and also what's best for those students," she said. "If I had my druthers I would've built a new school for them. They didn't want a new school. They never wanted a compromise. It was either keep Clifton at all costs no matter what it cost the county or you're going to suffer the consequences, Elizabeth T. Bradsher. And they wanted me to suffer those consequences."
She defends her decision, saying the court found she did nothing wrong. She said simply because she didn't agree with the advocates that assembled to try to save the school doesn't mean she didn't listen to them.
"I listened to every single person during those public hearings. I read every single email, I responded to every single email yet they chose to put my emails on blogs, they FOIA'd my emails and took excerpts out," she said. "The issue was what was the right thing to do for the students and our system and for our taxpayer."
As a result of the Clifton closing, the county was able to use those savings elsewhere, bumping up many of schools in Bradsher's district on the county's renovation queue.
"And that's a good thing," Bradsher said. "When you look at capacity enhancements we did at certain schools our savings were great and those savings went to help the CIP. It helped thousands and thousands of students including those Clifton students."
Other issues Bradsher thought the board navigated well were the budget and changing the grading scale.
"It was the worst recession since the Depression. We had to make unbelievable decisions and we did so in a way that was methodical and we all gave a little bit," she said. "I thought we handled [the grading issue] well, we did our research, we looked at other school systems … ."
Bradsher says the biggest challenge facing the board is how to educate students in the 21st century, a problem that should also weigh heavily in the selection process for the new superintendent.
"The new superintendent has to be on cutting edge of education because there are so many things coming down the pipe," she said. "We're really on the cusp of a new change and a new environment in education. … I don't want my school system to be experts in PR. I want them to be experts in educating students. That's what it's about."
While one term on the board was enough for Bradsher, who says she felt more effective as an advocate, her days in political office may not be over. She said she still feels the Springfield District needs more of a county-level voice.
"It's one thing for a leader to be elected but it's another thing for a leader to make a difference and to make a difference you have to know about getting along with people and getting votes and I don't see Springfield getting that right now."