Nonprofit group aims to preserve western Loudoun County’s historic schools

October 28, 2013

As Loudoun County’s public schools look ahead to next year’s budget deliberations, a process that has annually left the county’s oldest and smallest schools facing possible closing, a new nonprofit foundation is offering those schools the hope of survival.

The Western Loudoun Community Schools Foundation was launched this month with the ambitious goal of raising $1 million by Dec. 1. The money would be used to establish an endowment to help fund and preserve Loudoun’s oldest local schools, including historic Middleburg Elementary School, which is working with the School Board to prepare an application for a public charter program.

The foundation’s effort was off to a strong start as of Friday, with more than $185,000 in contributions collected, foundation President Teri Domanski said. That includes a $100,000 gift from a donor who wants to remain anonymous, she said.

“Not bad for 10 days,” she said.

The foundation has been in the works for years, Domanski said, as funding for the county’s smallest community schools has been repeatedly threatened during the School Board’s budget deliberations. This year, western Loudoun’s small schools received a particularly stern warning from several board members and from School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, who said that the cost of preserving the schools was not sustainable for a system that continues to face financial constraints and rapid growth.

“We’ve always been threatened because of finances,” Domanski said. “This idea first came up in one of our parents’ meetings: Why can’t we just find a way to offset the financial burden on the system?”

With the help of state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester), the group drew inspiration from John Handley High School in Winchester, Domanski said. The historic public school is supported in part by a private trust fund.

“We went and learned everything we could about how [John Handley High] functions, and it’s phenomenal what they have done out there,” Domanski said.

The Western Loudoun Community Schools Foundation has two main goals: to immediately save Middleburg Elementary, a 101-year-old school that serves about 60 students, and “to set up a model for a way to save community schools throughout Virginia,” Domanski said. The endowment would enable the foundation to help fund the schools on an ongoing basis, without having to solicit donations year after year, she said.

Vogel, a lawyer who specializes in nonprofit organizations, said she is happy to be able to help rescue schools that are at the heart of their communities.

“The families I spoke with felt like they were at a total loss, and that ultimately the future for these small schools was going to be the same as small schools all over Virginia,” Vogel said.

In other parts of Northern Virginia, including Fairfax and Prince William counties, many of the older and smaller community schools have been replaced, Vogel said.

“Big and shiny, new and modern always wins out,” she said.

Sometimes the upgrades were necessary, said Robert Krause, Prince William’s preservationist. Most of the Prince William buildings that dated to the early 20th century had to be replaced, he said.

“They were probably one-room, and they were built quickly,” Krause said. “A lot of them were not built for long-term use.”

Prince William has preserved a couple of its older buildings, including the former Bennett School in downtown Manassas, which was built in the 1880s and modified in the 1930s or ’40s, Krause said. But it has been idle for years, and a new use for the structure has not been found.

Western Loudoun families want to avoid the same fate for their beloved community schools, Vogel said, so much that she thinks the $1 million fundraising goal is “absolutely” attainable.

“I think that the people in Loudoun are very generous, and our larger community has raised money for a lot of things that are important,” she said. “In the hierarchy of needs, this is really important. It’s important to the community. It’s important to the ongoing culture of a small town.”

Vogel said the solution is a perfect fit for Loudoun, which faces the challenge of maintaining its sense of history and rural culture even as it continues to be one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States.

“There’s such an enormous disparity between the urban and rural cultures,” she said. “Loudoun, in that way, is a microcosm of the whole state.”

Although Loudoun is unique, Vogel said, the lesson of the foundation could still inspire action in other communities that are looking to preserve a beloved school.

“I think it sets an important standard for how we need to think outside the box sometimes,” she said.

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