Loudoun school community fights possible closing of Lincoln Elementary

January 20, 2013

Faced again this year with a difficult budget process, the Loudoun County School Board last week raised the possibility of closing one of the county’s oldest and smallest schools: Lincoln Elementary, a national blue-ribbon school that serves 136 students in the village of Lincoln, in western Loudoun.

It’s become something of a familiar routine in Loudoun. When searching for ways to close funding gaps, the School Board often considers closing one or more of the county’s older, smaller schools to eliminate the costs of maintaining aging facilities.

More than $300,000 would be required to pay for upgrades to Lincoln’s fire alarm and electrical systems and to replace several HVAC units, Loudoun school officials said

School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) asked School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III last week to report back to the board with more details on what would be involved in closing the school.

In the past, strong resistance from parents and other community members has prevented similar proposed closings from going forward. That has not changed: Members of the Lincoln Elementary community made it clear that they would not watch their school close without putting up a fight.

At a public hearing Tuesday evening, about 40 parents and members of the school community implored the School Board to keep Lincoln open, pointing to the school’s impressive academic record, as well as its place as the center of a historic community.

“Yes, Lincoln Elementary is small and maybe not as efficient or high-tech as the bigger and newer schools,” said Colleen Gustavson, a Loudoun native and the parent of two children at Lincoln, “but it is the center of a community and has been for generations. . . . If you add up all the ways Lincoln Elementary serves the community, you will see it is well worth the investment.”

Ian Tillman, parent of a first-grader at Lincoln, pointed to the school’s success as evidence that high-tech expenditures aren’t necessary for students to excel academically. The school is a small building with no gymnasium, auditorium or cutting-edge classroom technology, but its students have consistently scored 100 percent on Standards of Learning exams, he said.

“All you need is great teachers, a great administration and a high level of parent involvement, both in the classroom and at home,” he said.

Kerry Blake, a sixth-grader at Blue Ridge Middle School, said she wanted her two younger siblings to have the chance to finish elementary school at Lincoln, as she did.

“Lincoln won the governor’s award for five years in a row, and in the year 2011, Lincoln won the blue-ribbon award,” Kerry said. “I’m proud to be going on from Lincoln, because I know that no other school could ever work as hard for me.”

Brenna MacMillin, a Purcellville resident and a working mother of three, spoke passionately about Lincoln Elementary’s academic record.

“This school should be an example to the rest of the county for how to achieve a climate of success,” she said. “How can you take a true climate for success and close it down? It is senseless to me.”

MacMillin’s voice began to break as she continued. “I love Lincoln, I love the teachers and the staff . . . please protect this little gem that we all love so much.”

A final decision about the future of the school has not been made, but Lincoln community members have said they have no plans to back down. A group of about 20 parents met the day before the hearing, several said, to put together their arguments and their plans for saving the school.

Victor Blake, Kerry’s father, said in an interview that the value of the school goes beyond its academic success and sentimental value in the community. The historic charm of the village school is also an attractive selling point for prospective home buyers and for businesses, he said, and therefore the school has a significant effect on the county economy.

“People move here for that school. Thirteen years ago, I bought my property for that school, and I’m not the only one,” he said. “I’m a big fiscal conservative myself, so I’m all for swinging the ax and cutting expenses, but there’s a way to save money without closing schools.”

Although the tone of Tuesday’s hearing was respectful, Blake said it would be a “knock-down, drag-out fight” if the board didn’t respect the community’s wishes.

“We know what the charter says for the schools, and if they ignore the community completely, it can’t just be about money,” he said. “We will go to court.”

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