Loudoun School Board adopts new boundaries for Leesburg elementary schools

The months-long process of establishing new elementary school attendance zones in Leesburg ended Tuesday night, when the Loudoun County School Board voted to adopt a plan that will relocate 1,058 students to different schools next year.

The approved map shifts the boundary lines for six elementary schools to accommodate the new Frederick Douglass Elementary School, which will open on Plaza Street for the 2012-13 school year. Under the plan, about 600 of the relocated students will attend the new school.

The board’s vote brought to a close a complicated process that involved a number of public meetings, hearings and work sessions to examine the best way to redraw Leesburg’s school boundary lines. Among the goals were to ease classroom crowding and balance the populations of low-income students and English language learners across Leesburg’s nine elementary schools. More than a dozen plans were considered before the board adopted Bergel Plan 2 Amended.

At hearings over the past several weeks, many parents protested the possibility of having their children relocated. Board members acknowledged the legitimacy of the parents’ concerns — which are fairly typical during most boundary discussions, school officials said — as well as the impossibility of pleasing every affected community.

“If we listen to the public, we would build an 875-seat building that would sit empty, because no one wants to change from the status quo,” School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) said Tuesday.

Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) said that the process of drawing new boundary lines was “hands-down the most difficult decision” of her term.

“I’m shaking, because of the fact that, like for so many of you, this has been very difficult,” she said.

Bergel made the motion to adopt the Bergel Plan 2 Amended map, with Marshall, Thomas E. Reed (At Large), Priscilla B. Godfrey (Blue Ridge) and Robert F. DuPree (Dulles) voting in favor of the plan. Board Chairman John Stevens (Potomac) opposed the plan, along with board members Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) and Brenda Sheridan (Sterling). Joseph M. Guzman (Sugarland Run) was absent.

Stevens said he would not support the plan, because it concentrates 50 percent of Leesburg’s special-education students at two schools and splits a community labeled on the map as CL-19, which Stevens described as an interconnected neighborhood. The plan would move many of the low-income families in the community to John W. Tolbert Elementary School to help balance demographics across other Leesburg elementary schools.

That decision, Stevens said, was not made “for the people who live in CL-19. It is made because it enables other neighborhoods to get the school placements that they want to have . . . and that just doesn’t sit right with me.”

Bergel defended the plan, contending that it was the best overall solution for the broader community.

“I am not sitting up here making a decision for the benefit of some and not others,” she said. The choice was made “not to split communities . . . it’s to make sure that we are doing as best we can in terms of Leesburg.”

At the board meeting — the last one of the current School Board’s four-year term — the final vote was met with a round of scattered applause. Parents who supported different plans appeared less enthusiastic, but most expressed general relief as the lengthy process came to an end.

Bill Klein, a Leesburg parent and part of a group of residents who have been outspoken about the need to balance demographics in Leesburg schools, said after the meeting that he was generally pleased with the outcome, although he had supported the school staff members’ recommended plan, which did not come to a vote.

“It’s been a long time coming for us,” he said of the new attendance zones. Klein credited Marshall with emphasizing demographic parity as part of the key criteria in redrawing the boundaries.

“It was a key factor in driving some of this discussion, which was great,” Klein said. “A lot of people were unhappy about it. because they didn’t think it mattered. And usually that came from schools that weren’t dealing with it on a day-to-day basis.”

Klein and other parents had expressed concern about the high number of low-income students and students identified as English language learners at Ball’s Bluff Elementary and Catoctin Elementary. Ball’s Bluff reported about 34 percent low-income students this year, and Catoctin reported 38 percent.

Under the new plan, the elementary schools’ low-income populations range from 4 percent at Sycolin Creek to 31 percent at Frederick Douglass and 38 percent at Evergreen Mill. But new neighborhoods under construction near Frederick Douglass and Evergreen Mill are expected to raise enrollment and balance the demographics at those schools in the coming years, Bergel said Tuesday.

Ball’s Bluff and Catoctin’s numbers dropped to 25 percent and 18 percent, respectively, under the adopted plan.

Before the vote, some community members thanked the School Board members for their service. Six of the nine members will end their term this year: Only Reed, Bergel and Sheridan will return.

“I want to thank each of you for the countless hours that you have spent in the service of my children and our community and our county over the past four years,” resident Michelle Detweiler said.

Loudoun County Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles) also addressed the board to offer his appreciation.

“I know how hard your job is. I know about the late nights. I know about the difficult issues,” he said. “You guys, each of you, has distinguished yourself with integrity and honor and made a substantial contribution.”

 
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