Loudoun’s small community schools saved, for now

Four historic elementary schools in western Loudoun County will stay open for at least one more year, after the Loudoun County School Board voted late Tuesday night to remove the schools from a list of possible budget cuts.

Other contentious potential cuts — including bus service to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, sex-education teachers and freshman sports teams at county high schools — also were rejected by School Board members at Tuesday’s meeting.

The vote to keep Loudoun’s small schools open came one day after an emotional, five-hour public hearing that brought hundreds of western Loudoun residents to the SchoolAdministration Building in Ashburn. More than 180 students, parents and educators argued passionately against closing the four community schools.

The School Board decided earlier this month to consider closing Lincoln, Aldie, Hillsboro and Hamilton elementary schools, a move that county staff reports said would save about $2 million. After a budget cycle marked by escalating tension between school officials and county leaders, the school system was left facing a projected $37.7 million shortfall after the Board of Supervisors adopted its budget for fiscal 2015.

Loudoun’s historic community schools are accustomed to the possibility of closure. As the county’s student population has soared in recent years, particularly in Loudoun’s more densely populated eastern communities, school system leaders have repeatedly questioned the financial sense of providing upgrades, programs and maintenance for aging buildings that serve a smaller numbers of students.

But the communities surrounding Aldie, Lincoln, Hamilton and Hillsboro have made it clear that they wouldn’t let their beloved elementaries close without a fight. A majority of School Board members ultimately agreed that they should stay open — at least for now.

School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) said maintaining the small schools was vital to preserving school choice in Loudoun.

“Those small schools represent, in my opinion, an excellent alternative to sort of a one-size-fits-all model that we use in most of our other schools,” Fox said.

Fox pointed to the School Board’s initial approval of a charter program at Middleburg Elementary, which would make it “hypocritical” to close a school like Lincoln Elementary: “What we’re trying to get Middleburg to do is to function essentially like Lincoln is already functioning — relatively efficient, high performing, lots of community involvement,” he said. “Why would we close down Lincoln when it’s already doing what we’re encouraging Middleburg to do through the creation of a charter?”

Three school board members — Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) and Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) — voted to close the small schools. Sheridan and Kuesters both said they were compelled to represent their constituents, who had made it clear that saving the small schools was not a funding priority for them.

Hornberger said there was still plenty of room for students at other western Loudoun schools. “This is all about trade-offs,” he said. “This is all about what else can be afforded. . . . We’re being faced with making very difficult choices. It seems to me that this is a reasonable solution to look at.”

School board members Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) and Jeff Morse (Dulles) both pointed out the cultural divide between Loudoun’s more populated east and its rural west, a distinction that they said was painfully apparent during the discussion of the small community schools in the western part of the county.

“It’s very frustrating for someone as a representative of western Loudoun,” Turgeon said. “There is a tone of east against west. . . . It may not be intentional, but it’s there and I know people hear it.”

Morse said that he recognized the culture clash as well but that he was particularly disappointed with the tone of some speakers from western Loudoun at Monday’s hearing.

“They were angry, they were ugly; a lot of them were very polite, but unfortunately those aren’t the ones we hear,” he said of the speakers. “Yes, there is a divide between the east and the west, and you probably ought to be pretty happy that that’s not my criteria for deciding whether or not to close the schools.”

Morse said he would vote to keep the schools open for another year so that more thorough financial research could be conducted.

“I’m not saying long term that all those schools will stay open,” he said. But more information was needed “so that we can put this to bed, so that every year western Loudoun doesn’t have the bomb dropped on them. . . . It’s not fair.”

The School Board also removed a number of other items from the potential cut list, including the possibility of eliminating busing to Thomas Jefferson High School, an elite magnet school in Fairfax County. The School Board stood to save $390,000 but would have created serious transportation concerns for some of the more than 200 Loudoun students who attend the school

Morse said maintaining the bus service to Thomas Jefferson High was of paramount concern to him.

“They have achieved something that very few of us will ever achieve, and they’ve done that through hard work,” he said. “We owe it to them to get them to and from school.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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