In May, Loudoun County school officials, faced with a budget $4.5 million short of what they asked for, decided to cut the number of teachers in some small elementary schools and send them to schools with larger enrollments.

Last week parents of children in three of the small schools -- Middleburg, Waterford and Banneker -- turned out at the School Board meeting to protest the teacher cuts because it would create "combination classes," in which children in different grades are put together and taught by the same teacher. While combination classes were used in the past, recently there has been one teacher for each grade level.

"It's something that becomes quite emotional on our side because of the feeling we sometimes get that, because we are smaller schools, we are getting picked on," said Dennis J. Godfrey, a parent representing the Middleburg Elementary PTA, who asked the board to reconsider its decision.

"We are simply requesting the most fundamental thing: one teacher per grade," said Patricia Callahan, who has two children attending Middleburg.

School Board Chairman C. Carroll Laycock Jr. (Blue Ridge) said later, "It's very hard to absorb that kind of cut without some people feeling the pain."

According to School Board member Edward J. Kiley (Mercer District), enrollment projections indicated that 19 new elementary school teachers had to be hired to maintain the current student-teacher ratio. But because of budget constraints, the county decided to hire only 13 teachers.

Meanwhile, the number of projected students in eastern Loudoun reached the point that, because of state law, the county was required to put more teachers in those schools so the positions were transferred out of the smaller schools, officials said.

"You only have so many teaching positions to spread around," said Edgar B. Hatrick III, assistant superintendent for planning and pupil services. "We wanted to equalize loads in both parts of the county."

Hatrick said the projected student-teacher ratio across the county for the 1990-91 school year is 22 students to one teacher, and the redistribution of teachers will standardize that figure.

Officials project, for instance, that there will be 21.8 students for each teacher at Middleburg Elementary next year with the combination classes. If Middleburg were to keep the teachers who have been reassigned, however, the ratio would drop to 19.3 students for each teacher.

At the same time, larger elementary schools such as Guilford, which enroll 500 to 600 students, have a projected 23.5 students for each teacher. By comparison, the smaller schools enroll 75 to 125 students each.

"A lot of the debate on this has evolved into an east-west thing," said Kiley, who represents the Middleburg area. "People in the eastern end say, 'Why pay more money per student in Middleburg and not in Guilford?' "

However, Kiley said, "the reverse of that is the people in that part of the county {the western end} get little for their tax dollars except for public schools."

He said some special classes are taught by itinerant teachers who come in weekly, for example, and that the school librarian is only part-time.

Laycock, who represents several small schools in the Blue Ridge District, made the same point.

"Many, many times in the rural districts, this is the one service that these large landowners get for their tax dollars," he said.

"They've contributed heavily to the tax base, and we need to ask what they're getting for their tax dollars."

"I have heard from a lot of parents who were opposed to having their children put in these combination classes," Laycock said. "But there are others who have turned around and said, 'We had a good year,' after it was over."

In 1981, the School Board directed some of its members to report on managing the smaller schools in the county, and several parents criticized the report at the meeting.

Laycock said it may be time to review the whole issue of managing and staffing the smaller schools, which, in addition to Banneker, Middleburg and Waterford, include Aldie, Hillsboro and Round Hill.