Despite boisterous objections from people who oppose the school's religious teachings, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed last week to extend the Islamic Saudi Academy's lease of a former public school building in Alexandria for at least one more year.
The school, which has occupied the building since 1988, intended to consolidate its campus at a site it owns on Popes Head Road in Fairfax Station. However, during land-use hearings in 2009, the county board limited that site to 500 students because of traffic and safety concerns.
The academy has more than 700 students, according to its legal representative, Lynne Strobel, so school officials are examining options and looking for other facilities. The lease extension, which allows the school to stay put through the 2011-12 school year, allows that process to continue, she said.
In a memo to the county board, Fairfax County Public Schools officials said the school system would not need the property in the next school year, but would like to re-evaluate the need before the lease term is extended again.
Saudi Academy is paying nearly $2.6 million per year in rent, and the rent increases by 5 percent per year, according to the lease terms.
Supervisors Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) and Jeffrey McKay (D-Lee), who represent parts of the Richmond Highway corridor where the school is located, said residents and businesses near the school support it.
"This school, for the citizens of the Mount Vernon District, has never been a problem. It has been considered an asset and a good neighbor," Hyland said, noting he is "not insensitive" to concerns raised about the school's teachings.
In 2008, the academy's religious textbooks came under public scrutiny after the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report that indicated the textbooks promoted religious intolerance and supported violence. School officials later said they revised the religious curriculum in consultation with professors at two American universities.
A 1999 graduate of the school, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was convicted in 2005 of plotting to assassinate then-President George W. Bush and sentenced to life in prison.
The Oct. 19 hearing on the lease renewal was dominated by people who oppose the school's teachings and wanted the Board of Supervisors to deny the lease on those grounds.
"We feel that you are empowered to stop this. Get as tough with these people as you get with those people who don't clean up their yards," said James Lafferty, chairman of the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force. "We believe the Islamic Saudi Academy is a threat to our community."
Those involved with the school disputed the claims of intolerance. Acting General Director Ron Schultz, who said he himself is a Christian, said the academy is "a normal private school" with teachers from many religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The lease extension was approved on a party-line vote, with Republican Supervisors Patrick Herrity (Springfield), John Cook (Braddock) and Michael Frey (Sully) voting against it. Cook and Herrity had asked to delay the decision until January to get more information about possible future uses for the facility.