Four small schools in Loudoun are again facing the threat of being closed

The threat of closing several of Loudoun County’s oldest and smallest elementary schools has become something of an annual tradition in recent years, as the School Board has struggled to balance the demands of a growing school system against pressure from a fiscally conservative Board of Supervisors to reduce costs.

In the past, impassioned feedback from the communities surrounding Loudoun’s smallest elementary schools has helped keep them open. But now, with the School Board facing a $38 million funding gap after the Board of Supervisors adopted its fiscal 2015 budget last week, the possibility of closing four Loudoun schools — Lincoln Elementary, Hillsboro Elementary, Hamilton Elementary and Aldie Elementary — has moved decidedly closer to reality.

At an April 1 meeting, School Board members said they wanted to proceed with a public hearing to address closing the small schools, a legal step that must precede any closing or consolidation.

Closing the four elementary schools would save the school system about $2 million, a number that would increase once additional savings from redistributing equipment and avoiding repairs and upgrades is factored in, School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said.

Parents across the county have made it clear that they won’t let go of their schools without a fight, and many have launched organized efforts to find viable alternatives. The Middleburg Elementary community received conditional approval this year to convert its historic school into the first charter school in Northern Virginia. A charter application is also in progress for Hillsboro Elementary. In Aldie, parents have proposed a plan to expand the elementary school to accommodate as many as 450 students.

Two of the schools — Aldie, with 131 students, and Lincoln Elementary, with 135 students — operate well below the county’s average cost-per-pupil cost of about $11,600. Aldie’s average is $11,090, and Lincoln’s average is $10,099, according to school staff reports.

Hamilton, with 165 students, comes in at $12,470; and Hillsboro, with just 62 students enrolled, spends about $19,000 per student.

School Board members have said that the decision to close the small schools does not have to be an all-or-nothing choice. “In theory, it’s possible to remove certain schools but not all of them from our list of areas to cut,” Hornberger said. “The majority of the board can do whatever it wants to do in terms of removing schools or keeping them on there.”

The possibility of shuttering the county’s small schools has drawn condemnation from some members of the Board of Supervisors who have accused the School Board of manipulating the public and misrepresenting the county’s education allocation, which increased by $70 million over the fiscal 2014 budget.

Before supervisors adopted the fiscal 2015 budget last week, Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-
Catoctin) said at the meeting that the School Board’s proposal to close the small schools was “purely retribution” aimed at riling the community.

“I am concerned about emotional threats to parents about cutting sports teams or closing small schools or whatever else is going to make people very unhappy,” he said.

Hornberger dismissed the accusation and said the school system will inevitably face painful cuts as a result of the shortfall.

“I think the School Board put its money where its mouth is, and we are not playing games,” Hornberger said. “Do we want to do any of this? No . . . that’s why we included those schools as part of our program in our adopted budget. But when you put a $38 million gap in that budget, you’ve got to figure out a way to reconcile it. . . . . . . We have to look at anything that is not absolutely necessary.”

Hornberger said he anticipates that the response from the community will be as strong as it has been in the past, but he added that he has also heard from constituents who think the time has come to close the small schools.

“This is something people care passionately about, especially those who are directly affected,” Hornberger said. “We will be listening to what are the arguments they’re making, and do those arguments actually carry weight? Because the reality is, if I don’t cut $2 million here, where else am I going to cut?”

A public hearing has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 21 at the School Administration Building in Ashburn. The School Board aims to adopt a reconciled budget by the end of the month, Hornberger said.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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