Supervisors Kill Deal for Schools Site

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to reject a request by the school district to buy 174 acres in Ashburn to build three schools, saying that the deal struck by school officials was too costly and that the process for buying land for schools was flawed.

School district officials had agreed to pay $11.5 million for the property. But the county's assessor had estimated that the land was worth dramatically less, $2.6 million. Supervisors also said they were troubled that the district's offer included a $2 million bump to sweeten the pot for the owner. They ordered the school district to return to the owner and renegotiate the price.

But school district officials said the assessor has underestimated the market value of the property. They said the land was a good value, partly because it would provide the economy of scale of building three schools on a single site. They said that by paying $2 million more than their appraiser's estimate, the county would avoid having to condemn the property against the owner's will, an expensive legal maneuver.

"I'm disappointed," said Sam C. Adamo, director of planning and legislative services for Loudoun schools. Because Tuesday's vote requires the school district to pull out of a contract, "I think it's going to have a really significant impact on our ability to purchase land in the future," he said.

The dispute is the most recent in a string of disagreements between the school district and the county board, which holds the purse strings. County officials also criticized the School Board this year for requesting a $117 million funding increase in the face of one of the tightest county budgets in decades.

County officials have also been frustrated with the cost of the schools being built by the district, which expects to add as many as 18 schools over the next six years to keep up with enrollment growth. The 50,000-student district expands by about 3,000 students each year, enough to virtually fill an elementary school, middle school and high school.

The acrimony comes despite a concerted effort by the supervisors to ease tensions between the two bodies, which have sometimes been at odds over financial issues.

"I have worked very hard to establish a rather positive working environment with the School Board and the school staff, and I hope this action today doesn't poison the well," said Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer).

School Board Chairman Robert F. DuPree Jr. (Dulles) said he also hoped that Tuesday's vote was not a bellwether for future relations.

"The School Board and Board of Supervisors in the past have historically worked together well," he said. "I hope this is just a one-time deviation from that pattern and does not signal something is terminally broken in the relationship."

Also Tuesday, the board voted to take an inventory of the available properties across the county that might be suitable for schools. The hope, they said, was to provide more information to Loudoun residents and to the board, which they said is often informed about land purchases at the last minute.

Supervisor Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac) said she was troubled by what she said was a pattern of difficulties in acquiring land for schools. In a memo to her fellow supervisors Tuesday, she noted several controversies, including a dispute in Purcellville over a proposed high school. The Virginia Supreme Court is deciding whether the school district can build Woodgrove High School near the town against its wishes.

"I am not questioning whether we should or should not have bought the parcels involved above," she wrote. "These controversies have, however, made me think hard about my role and accountability to the taxpayers and students of Loudoun County."

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