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Downturn Puts Strain On School Boundaries
Redistricting Has Fewer Alternatives

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As the economic outlook grows increasingly bleak, school systems in the Washington region are delaying construction and even considering shuttering schools, moves that could force wide-scale shuffling of students among campuses and disrupt deep connections that students and families have to neighborhood schools.

This month, Prince George's County's interim superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., proposed closing six under-enrolled schools and parceling out those students to other schools.

Prince William County is considering putting plans for a badly needed high school on hold, a decision that would result in shifting students to balance enrollments.

Loudoun County is facing delayed construction of schools planned for fast-growing neighborhoods and the prospect of closing a handful of under-enrolled schools.

The budget crunch is hitting schools in many ways, forcing increases in class size and cutbacks in staff and programs, but the possibility of uprooting students could be among the most painful for students and their families.

Boundary changes can cause heartache and outrage as students are plucked out of one school and dropped in another, separating them from their friends, teachers, sports teams and clubs. Families that settled in neighborhoods based on the local schools could find that they will be sending their children somewhere unexpected. The changes can be especially hard at the high school level.

"I know a lot of parents here are loading up the pitchforks and shovels now, in case the peasant revolution has to start in January," when proposals for boundaries in Loudoun will be unveiled, said Ed Sugg, whose children attend Little River Elementary School and Mercer Middle School, both in the southeastern part of the county.

School budgets have been hit hard as plummeting home sales and property values have forced local governments to hunt for spending cuts. The situation grew worse this month when Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) proposed cutting $425 million in state funding for education, including eliminating $83 million in state assistance for school construction.

The biggest impact on school boundaries is expected in Loudoun, where officials will consider redrawing attendance areas for nearly half the schools, including four of 10 high schools. The county Board of Supervisors put the kibosh on school construction in the fiscal year that starts in July, citing the county's budget shortfall and the difficulty of issuing bonds in the tight credit market. School officials said they have been told that the hiatus might stretch to 2011.

But student growth hasn't stopped. The 57,000-student school system expects nearly 2,500 additional students in the 2009 school year and more than 2,800 in 2010. That spells massive shifts in student population to use existing capacity more efficiently.

If the budget picture grows more dire, school officials said, four elementary schools with dwindling enrollment in the western part of the county -- Aldie, Hillsboro, Lincoln and Middleburg -- could be closed.

"I think it's going to get real dicey around here," said Sam Adamo, director of planning and legislative services for Loudoun schools. "These will be the most challenging boundary changes we've ever faced."

Prince George's County school officials have not identified the six schools that could be closed, so it is unknown which communities could face a boundary battle.

Decisions over which students will be displaced from their neighborhood schools spark strong emotional reactions from parents and students.

Two years ago, when Loudoun officials last considered tweaking the boundaries for Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, more than 400 people spoke at a hearing.

"I think a lot of people want to go to Stone Bridge, and it might cause a lot of grief if they find out they can't," said Arlene Stark, a vice president of the Stone Bridge PTSO.

The construction halt in Loudoun is a striking move for a system that has opened 25 schools since 2002, growth that also led to frequent boundary changes. Some parents have grown accustomed to upheaval.

"At this point with the growth out here, unfortunately, it's become regular for us," said Barb Frick, a vice president of the PTO at Legacy Elementary School in Ashburn, another target for changes.

By delaying the opening of planned schools, school systems save the cash needed to hire teachers and other staff members and to outfit classrooms with books and equipment.

Prince William's School Board was scheduled to vote this month on whether to go forward with construction of a high school that would relieve crowding in schools in the western part of the county. The proposal would probably enjoy smooth sailing in most years but is in serious doubt this time around. The meeting was the same day that Kaine announced that the state would be cutting education funding, and the board delayed the vote to study the impact.

If the high school is voted down, the county could face boundary revisions, said David Beavers, supervisor of planning and financial services for the Prince William school system.

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