School system might return testing fees
Following an opinion from the Virginia Attorney General, Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Jack Dale has asked that the School Board refund about $2 million the system collected in testing fees this school year.
On Jan. 8, Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli (R) wrote that the school system's practice of charging Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate students a testing fee violated a provision in the state constitution that mandates access to a free education. Students were charged $75 for testing to help balance the school system's budget.
State Sen. David Marsden (D-Dist. 37), who represents parts of Centreville, Chantilly, Springfield and Burke, asked Cuccinelli to issue an opinion on the matter.
Because Cuccinelli's opinion is not binding, the School Board does not have to discontinue the practice and refund the fees. But if the board doesn't, it risks a court challenge to the practice.
To comply with Cuccinelli's opinion, the school system can either make the test optional for students taking AP and IB classes or it can resume covering the testing costs and refund the previously collected fees, Dale said.
If the School Board approves the refunds, it also could be charged bank fees and other costs, increasing the cost of issuing the refunds, according to Dale.
The School Board is expected to make a decision on the testing fees at today's meeting.
Fairfax rescue team returns from Japan
Virginia Task Force I, Fairfax County's Urban Search and Rescue Team, returned home from Japan early Sunday morning.
It was a difficult homecoming for the 74-member rescue team, which was deployed for seven days in one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami.
Robert Zoldos II, a battalion chief for the task force, said his team found a number of bodies but no survivors, despite their efforts.
The team had hoped they would be involved in a search-and-rescue operation. But the devastation caused by the earthquake and the tsunami that followed meant that their mission quickly turned into a search-and-recovery -- of victims -- operation instead.
The March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on the northeast coast of Japan left an estimated 9,000 people dead and more than 13,000 still missing.
"We never experienced anything like this before," Zoldos said of the catastrophe. "The damage and destruction was incredibly widespread. The tsunami moved many of the victims from their original location, which made finding survivors more difficult."
Zoldos helped find earthquake victims in Haiti last year. He said the mission in Japan was much different and much more difficult.
Elizabeth Kreitler, a member of Zoldos' team, told reporters: "You wonder how they could ever pick up. There was just debris and logs and destruction over such a wide area that it's hard to imagine how they could even start to clear it, because there's nothing still intact."
But Zoldos said his team returned in high spirits. Zoldos said that just being there, finding victims, helped give survivors closure.
Connaughton wants changes to Dulles station
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton wrote a letter March 15 addressed to Charles Snelling, chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, asking that Dulles International Airport's proposed underground Metrorail station be changed to an aerial station.
Connaughton's main reason for seeking the change is that it will save $640 million in taxpayer money.
The second phase of Metrorail's expansion to Loudoun, which includes the Dulles station, is more expensive than initially anticipated. Phase 2 is projected to cost $3.8 billion -- a more than $1 billion increase over its original projection. Phase 1 costs $2.7 billion.
Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (I-At large) said last month he endorsed Metrorail's aerial station as a cost-cutting measure.
The Loudoun Economic Development Commission voted unanimously to endorse the above-ground option in September.
Metrorail currently has designs for an underground tunnel station as well as an aerial, or above-ground, station.
By selecting the aerial alternative, the authority would be showing taxpayers they are concerned about the use of valuable state and local dollars and assets, Connaughton said.
Funding for construction comes from local jurisdictions, an increase in tolls on the Dulles Toll Road and the creation of a special tax district surrounding the Metro stops.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova wrote a letter to Snelling last month stating that Phase 2 cost estimates do not sit well with the Fairfax board.
"When coupled with the recent information about actual costs exceeding budget for station finishes on [Phase 1], the county is further concerned about the accuracy of the cost estimate for [Phase 2]," she said in the letter.
"If the Airports Authority Board favors an alignment that is more costly than the aerial alignment, then the Airports Authority should fund the differential without impacting Fairfax County or tolls on the Dulles Toll Road," Bulova said.
Connaughton also expressed concern about rising toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road. He said that toll rates must remain as low as possible and that the authority "must do anything possible with alternative design selection, value engineering, excellent project management and oversight and creative financing to keep costs low."
Connaughton also noted that Fairfax and Loudoun county leaders have endorsed the aerial station, as both governments have direct impact with finance commitments to the project.
Cox offers free calls to Japan in wake of disaster
Calls placed to Japan on Cox Communications' digital telephone service will be free of charge through the end of March, the Herndon company announced March 16. The free calls include both Cox land-line and cell phones dialed to the Japan country code.
The program is automatic for all residential Cox digital telephone customers who have Cox long distance, Gary McCollum, general manager of Cox Virginia, said in a news release.
Cox also has opened its TV Japan channel (287) to its customers with Cox Advanced TV access in Fairfax County. TV Japan, a 24-hour news channel in both Japanese and English, will air until March 31.
"We want to make it easier for our customers to get in touch with their friends and family members in Japan and stay informed of the situation during this terrible tragedy," McCollum said in the release.
FCPS named AP Achievement District
Fairfax County Public Schools is one of 388 school districts in the U.S. to be named an Advanced Placement Achievement District by the College Board.
The list recognizes school districts that make AP courses available to a broader pool of students and aintain or increase the percentage of students who earn a score of 3 or higher on AP tests.
To be named an AP Achievement District, school districts must increase participation in or access to AP exams and an increase in student achievement on the exams.
From 2008 to 2010, FCPS increased the number of students participating in AP from 14,220 in 2008 to 15,270 in 2010 while improving the percentage of students earning AP exam scores of 3 or higher, the score typically needed to earn college credit, from 72 percent in 2008 to 74 percent in 2010.
For more information, visit www.FCPS.edu.