School Board tackles Dulles South elementary school attendance zones

October 9, 2013

When Little River Elementary School opened in 2000, just over 600 students were enrolled at the first public school to be built in Loudoun County’s Dulles South community.

Today, more than10,000 students attend 11 schools in the Dulles South area, and an additional school — Cardinal Ridge Elementary — is set to open in fall 2014.

As a result of the new school’s imminent arrival, the attendance zones for seven other elementary schools — including Little River, Aldie, Arcola, Buffalo Trail, Hutchison Farm, Liberty and Pinebrook — will be reviewed and potentially redrawn by the Loudoun County School Board, a months-long process that began this week.

The review got off to a typically quiet start, according to schools officials. More than a dozen community members attended the initial public hearing Monday, and one person addressed the board.

The new attendance zones are designed to relieve overcrowding and “balance student needs throughout the Dulles South area, to the greatest extent possible,” according to a school system overview. Middle and high school attendance zones will not be affected, officials said.

Most elementary schools in Dulles South are already operating at near-capacity, and two schools — Liberty Elementary and Pinebrook Elementary — are over capacity, according to school records. Cardinal Ridge Elementary is expected to open with a student capacity of 928 students, officials said.

In one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, where the student population has skyrocketed in the past decade, Loudoun school officials increasingly find themselves faced with the challenging and often controversial task of redrawing school boundary lines. For the current board, elected in 2011, the upcoming process will be the third time that board members have addressed new school zones; the previous board established or adjusted school boundaries six times from January 2009 to December 2011.

The prospect of having students reassigned has always evoked a passionate response in the affected communities, as families with attachments to their schools often resist relocation.

Community members have expressed concern about demographic equality and proximity to their schools. Four of the Dulles South elementary schools have “walk zones,” meaning they have students who live close enough to walk to school — a benefit that families are generally eager to maintain.

Historically, most objections have decreased after the final boundaries are decided and students and families begin adjusting to the new plan, school officials have said. But in recent years, as discussions of new school zones have become more frequent and particularly heated, several communities have continued to fight new attendance zone plans — even taking their cases to court.

This year, many residents from the Brambleton community in eastern Loudoun were outraged by the School Board’s adopted plan for new boundaries for middle and high schools in the Ashburn and Dulles North areas. After the board voted in April to adopt attendance zones that would move more than 500 students from Briar Woods High School to a new high school, several residents filed a judicial petition in Loudoun County Circuit Court to request that the decision be reviewed. The case is still pending, officials said.

The Brambleton petition followed similar legal complaints filed by residents of two Leesburg communities, who filed separate judicial petitions in January 2012 after the School Board established new zones for Leesburg elementary schools.

Those cases marked the first time in Loudoun’s history that a school boundary dispute had escalated to the courts, according to school officials. In both cases, Loudoun Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne ruled in favor of the School Board.

The School Board will hold a series of work sessions, staff briefings and public hearings concerning the new Dulles South attendance zones in coming months. A full schedule is available on the Loudoun County Public Schools Web site at http://www.lcps.org. Members of the public can sign up for public hearings scheduled for Oct. 23, Nov. 5, Nov. 25 and Dec. 9.

School staff members will present base attendance zone proposals to the School Board on Oct. 21, officials said. School Board members will review the base proposals and suggest additional scenarios for consideration as the discussion continues.

The School Board is expected to adopt new elementary school attendance zones at its Dec. 10 meeting, officials said.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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