A controversial proposal to use $25,000 in Clifton town funds to help pay a portion of legal fees incurred by a group that worked to keep Clifton Elementary School open brought dozens of residents to town hall Tuesday night.
Ultimately, after a long and passionate public hearing before the town council meeting, officials did not make a final decision, but they will continue to entertain the option.
The $25,000 would represent about 14 percent of the legal fees due to Patton Boggs, LLC, the firm hired by Friends of Community Schools. Two lawsuits were filed in an effort to keep the school open. The money would represent 13.6 percent of the Town of Clifton’s annual revenues of about $183,500.
“What we did was keep the door open to spend up to $25,000 pending further discussion at future town council meetings,” said Clifton vice mayor Dwayne Nitz.
Fairfax County Public School board officials voted to shutter the school in July of 2010 citing renovations costs among other reasons.
Two separate lawsuits were filed in the wake of the decision to close the school. One lawsuit had to do with the legitimacy of the board’s decision, the second had to do with whether board officials violated open records laws during meetings pertaining to the school’s closure.
Neither of the suits ultimately resulted in a reversal of the school board’s decision, though parents are still working on getting the school re-opened as a charter school.
Passion on Both Sides
Members of Friends of Community Schools spoke passionately in support of the town’s assistance at the public hearing, though there were also several detractors.
The parents who spoke out at Tuesday’s meetings largely pointed out that families did not have much time to decide whether to litigate and could not predict what the ultimate cost of litigation would be.
“I hope that council realizes a decision to litigate had to be made within 30 days after that vote,” Tom VanBlaricom, a former Clifton Elementary School parent and member of Friends of Community Schools, said at the public hearing.
“I am in support of the town funding to offset the fees for the lawsuit at the amount that the town can afford. … There was just a small subset of people who got together to get the school saved. A few people put themselves on the line and there are a bunch of fees on their heads,” said resident Phyllis Lovett.
Another resident, Steve Effros, said that though his children did not attend the school, he would support the town’s assistance.
“In this context we aren’t really talking about the town, we are talking about the community,” Effros said. “It doesn’t behoove us to now say that it’s town versus out of town.”
Other residents, however, said that they were concerned about the prospect of putting up town money.
“There is no doubt we all wanted Clifton to stay here but it didn’t happen,” said local business owner and Clifton resident Judy McNamara. “There were 300 plus families from the school when it closed, there are only 20 who live in town.”
“If I decided to do open new location and I overspend on a lawyer can I come to you for money?” McNamara asked the town council.
Resident Pat Layden, who is also a former Clifton town councilman, also expressed concerns.
“What is running through my mind when I hear this request is whether the folks in the committees, when they were putting together the lawsuits, did they think through where the money was going to come from?” Layden asked.
Line Item Allocation Set
Town officials would have to make a change in their budget to allow for the expenditure.
“We negotiated a very fair agreement with Patton Boggs with some good faith money this year and this community intends to honor that agreement,” VanBlaricom said. “They have been our staunch allies throughout this project.”
The Clifton Town Council continued to consider the request during the town council meeting that was held after the public hearing.
“This has to be done. I don’t know how much it should be. What I don’t appreciate is that the law firm holding a gun to our heads saying you have to do this in x number of days,” said councilman Chuck Rusnak.
Though the council moved forward with including a line item for a possible allocation, the exact amount will be determined at a future town council meeting.
The next meeting is scheduled for November 1. Between then and now, council members will consult with town attorneys.