Hillsboro is a small town that is gearing for a big fight.

The town of 120, along with its surrounding area, is determined to keep its school, Hillsboro Elementary, which with 87 students is the second-smallest in the county. Last spring, in the midst of bitter budget negotiations, some members of the Loudoun School Board suggested that tiny schools such as Hillsboro might not survive if their operations were found to be too expensive.

That infuriated Clare Cutshall, who has two children at Hillsboro Elementary. "The school is really the focal point" of Hillsboro, Cutshall said. "This town needs a school."

Cutshall and other parents will try to impress that point upon a committee of parents, teachers and principals Wednesday night. The Small Schools Study Committee is charged with recommending ways the School Board can operate small schools more efficiently, including closing some if necessary.

The hearing will begin at 7:30 p.m. at Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg. Speakers will be given five minutes each.

It is the only hearing the committee has planned so far, although the public is welcome at its weekly Wednesday meetings.

"We expect a fairly large turnout," said Dean Worcester, the committee's chairman. "I think it is an important issue to a lot of people."

The committee began its work in September after being appointed by the School Board, which agreed to the study after defeating a motion by board member William A. White (Broad Run) to close Hillsboro and Aldie elementaries to save $400,000 in the current school budget.

The state also has undertaken a study of small schools. This year, the General Assembly considered penalizing some jurisdictions with small schools, saying their operations are too costly. Legislators eventually softened the measure, directing a committee to examine the issue.

Worcester, a Leesburg lawyer who has a child at Hamilton Elementary, said the local committee is seeking public comment to help it determine how well the county's small schools are serving children. "That is the most difficult task we have," Worcester said.

The committee also is charged with determining the cost of educating pupils at small schools as opposed to larger ones. A 1981 study, the last one done, found that the system spends an average of $1,100 more to educate a child at a small school.

The school system now defines a small school as one with 125 or fewer students. That applies to five schools other than Hillsboro: Aldie, Banneker, Lucketts, Middleburg and Waterford elementaries. However, the committee may recommmend changing that definition.

The committee report is scheduled for presentation to the School Board on Dec. 11. There will be an interim report Nov. 13.

Small schools have been a contentious issue in Loudoun County for more than a decade.

Some officials representing the densely populated eastern end of the county -- where elementary populations are 500 and more -- see little reason to spend extra money to operate western schools for 100 students.

"There are a lot of factors to consider," said White, who represents part of eastern Loudoun. "It's not just cost alone . . . but certainly right now that's what's driving us."

White said the board must decide "what are frills, what are niceties and what are necessities."

Parents and officials who represent the western end of the county say their schools are among the necessities. They say that a school is the heart of its community and that children should not have to endure an hour's bus ride just because their parents live west of Leesburg.

"Some of these kids are already riding 45 minutes," Cutshall said.