Betty Pat Clatterbuck guided her school bus along a rutted gravel road in western Loudoun County one recent morning, passing wooden fences and round rolls of baled hay.

She picked up her last few passengers, waved to one child's grandmother and headed to Hillsboro Elementary School with 11 of the school's 84 students on board. It's a pattern she has followed for 22 years.

But her ambling routine is in danger of ending next year, as Loudoun school officials contemplate closing Hillsboro and the county's other small elementary schools -- average enrollment 95 -- to help offset an expected $11 million budget shortfall next year.

The prospect has sparked an emotional debate in western Loudoun, with many parents arguing that financial savings can never make up for the role small schools play as centers of community life in this sparsely populated rural area some 50 miles west of Washington.

"We don't have a community center, and most of our children don't live on lighted, sidewalked streets," said Iris Kander, a parent at Waterford, one of the threatened schools. "If you take away Waterford School, you take away the heart and soul of our community."

School officials, facing a $4 million cut in state aid and a sharp drop in local tax revenue, say they may have no choice: They have to look at every budget item, including these six schools, where the average cost of educating children is about 50 percent higher than at other county elementary schools. Closing some or all six and shifting students to other buildings could save money, administrators say.

Tonight, a School Board committee studying the future of small schools is to issue a preliminary report. A final report is due in December. Early next year, the School Board is expected to decide what, if any, schools to close. "These are tough times," said Edgar Hatrick, who heads the planning office for Loudoun's schools. "The budget process is going to be more difficult this year than it has been in a long, long time."

The debate over small schools in Loudoun echoes similar disputes in rural areas elsewhere, as school districts struggle to find ways to spend their money more efficiently.

For decades administrators have tried to maximize cost-effectiveness and control per-pupil costs by closing and consolidating underused schools. As schools have consolidated, there has been a nationwide decline in the number of small schools.

In Virginia, for example, the number of elementary schools dropped from 2,812 in 1950 to 1,139 this year, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education. During the same period, the average enrollment in elementary schools jumped from 163 to 553

But the trend may be slowing, as administrators look increasingly to quality rather than the per capita cost, say a group of education researchers scattered around universities and the Department of Education. Children who attend small schools often feel more involved and produce better academic results than those in larger schools, said Deborah Verstegen, a University of Virginia education professor.

According to Verstegen and other researchers, administrators are beginning to support small schools, or breaking large ones into smaller units, in efforts to improve student attitudes about learning, their engagement in school life, community involvement and, of course, test scores.

"The whole way we view efficiency has changed," Verstegen said. "We can't just look at dollars per student, but at what those dollars buy . . . . There is a real shift in the notion of small schools."

The fate of Loudoun's small schools became an issue in September, when the School Board asked a committee of parents and educators to study possible cuts at schools in Aldie, Benneker, Hillsboro, Lucketts, Middleburg and Waterford, each of which serves fewer than 125 students. Loudoun's K-12 system has a total of about 14,600 students and about $95 million this year.

School records show the average cost for each student at small schools is $3,259. At the county's 17 other elementary schools, the average cost is $2,124, about $1,100 less.

Dean Worcester, a parent who is chairman of the committee studying small schools, said the numbers don't show the true value of the schools to the communities. And he questions, citing the costs of busing students elsewhere and maintaining empty school buildings, whether the closings would bring any real savings.

"We can come up with a figure, but what does that tell them?" Worcester said.

An alliance of residents and parents is supporting the small schools with a passion not often seen west of Leesburg. More than 200 residents turned out at a public meeting last month to complain loudly about the closing threat. Parents and children say they fear that consolidation would lead to longer bus rides, which in some cases already approach an hour. The state recommends limiting bus trips to about 45 minutes.

"I don't want {Hillsboro} to close. I don't want to go any farther," said 9-year-old Heather Everhart, a fourth-grader who lives about six miles from Harpers Ferry, W.Va. "There's really nothing to do on the bus."

More important, many parents say they believe their children get more attention at the small schools than they would at larger ones. They say students get a chance to know everyone in school, including teachers, principals and aides.

At Hillsboro, Principal Jerry Hill answers his own phone and often can be found helping out in the school's four classrooms.

"The intimacy of the whole operation is something you just can't have" in a larger school, said Hill, who transferred to Hillsboro a year ago from the 448-student Sterling Elementary in eastern Loudoun. "When you have 600-some students, it's easy for some kids to get lost."

Some residents who have no children in school have said that in an area with few restaurants and no movie theaters or malls, the schools function as community centers, housing scout headquarters, polling stations and soccer centers. Others point out that the schools are the only tangible example for rural residents of how their taxes are spent.

Clatterbuck, echoing the thoughts of many of her neighbors, insists school closings not only would cut the quality of education, but would further erode a country way of life already lost in the county's eastern edge.

"Children feel more secure," said Clatterbuck of Hillsboro, where her husband and children learned to read. "If you bus them out of the community, you sort of lose touch with things . . . . It's more stressful to them."