“There are a lot of people who are not happy,” Susan Carroll said. Even if parents believe, as Carroll does, that the quality of Loudoun County’s schools overall is consistently good, she said, “it’s very hard not to react with emotion. This is so personal, where your kids go to school and how you plan your life around it.”
With staggering growth rates in much of Northern Virginia, change is the new constant. In Loudoun County, population shot up 84 percent from 2000 to 2010. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia estimates Loudoun’s population has risen another 7 percent in the past two years, according to numbers scheduled for release Friday.
There was a time when everyone knew which high school kids in each corner of the county would attend, which football team they would cheer for on Friday nights. That was before the county was adding 2,500 to 3,500 new students — the size of an average U.S. school system or more — every year. School boundaries used to carve into counties as though into granite, helping to define communities’ identities and traditions over time. Now they’re more like an Etch a Sketch, constantly getting shaken up, erased, redrawn.
Those lines on the map matter to many parents, affecting two of the things they care about most: their children and, for many, their biggest financial stake, their house.
“People buy homes thinking they will be attending that particular school through the life span of that household,” said Ajay Rawat, coordinator of facilities planning services in Fairfax County Public Schools. But in many parts of the region, that’s no longer a safe bet; parents can’t count on moving into the neighborhood near the school with the particular attention to autistic students or the Spanish immersion track or the technology magnet program.
And so just about every redistricting plan sparks a battle. People scrutinize the lines and talk to neighbors. They send e-mails — 100 to 200 every day, one Loudoun board member said. They question engineering studies and linear regression models of population growth. They wear school colors and crowd into public hearings — more than 2,000 at a single meeting in Fairfax several years ago.
They accuse school officials of racism. They demand documents through the federal open-records law, hoping to prove errors and conspiracies. They file lawsuits, as parents did unsuccessfully in Loudoun County last year, to try to stop the changes.
Sometimes they win concessions, persuade officials to tweak plans.
And sometimes they throw their hands up, with an all-caps message like William Johnson wrote at the end of a long and detailed e-mail to county leaders in Arlington this fall: