A committee of parents and educators studying Loudoun County's six smallest elementary schools has concluded the schools are valuable and should not be closed.

In a report given to the Board of Supervisors this week, the group said the schools provided a strong education, gave students a strong sense of community and served as anchors for western Loudoun's rural towns.

The committee was appointed by the School Board to weigh the prospect of closing the schools to save money next year when funds for schools will be very tight. Each of the schools, which are Aldie, Banneker, Hillsboro, Lucketts, Middleburg and Waterford, has fewer than 125 students.

"It was apparent to everyone {on the committee} that the small schools are the pivotal focus of the community," said Dean Worcester, the chairman. "It doesn't appear that having conglomerate schools is going to be the answer."

The committee's conclusions came as the School Board scrambles to find ways to offset an $11 million shortfall expected next year. Board Chairman C. Carroll Laycock Jr. said he agrees with the findings. "That doesn't surprise me in the least," he said. "They {the small schools} are an asset."

The board will likely meet with the committee in the coming weeks to discuss its findings, Laycock said.

The prospect of closing small elementary schools touched off an emotional debate, with parents in western Loudoun arguing that financial savings could never make up for the role small schools play as the center of community life. Parents said students have a better learning environment at smaller schools.

In its report, the committee agreed with those arguments.

Although it was asked by the School Board to measure the per-student cost of operating the schools, the committee said that such numbers distorted the value of the schools, which have the highest per-student costs of the 20 elementary schools in the county.

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.

The report says that looking only at per-student cost ignores the "human factors" of a school's value. It also excludes the cost of debt service, which continues even if a school is closed, and distorts the true cost of the schools to the system.

Hillsboro, for example, with a per-student cost of about $3,365 for its 87 students, appears to be the fourth most expensive school in the county. But the report shows that that average drops to a relatively low $2,661 by adding 23 students.

"The School Board should be cautioned against emphasizing this simplistic computation," the report said. "Cost per pupil figures should not be used as a significant criterion for determining whether a school should remain open, such figures being inherently misleading."

Iris Kander, parent of a Waterford student and a critic of the prospect of cutting small schools, said she was happy about the study committee's report, but uneasy about how budget cuts might change the way the schools operate.

"I'm extremely pleased," she said. "We don't want to lose what we have."

The committee noted 17 advantages of small schools, including a student's sense of belonging, the ability of a school to include every student in an activity and the opportunities for a teacher to work more closely with each student.

Drawbacks include the need to combine grades, the inflexibility in removing children from a particular class because of academic or behavioral problems, the lack of diversity in a small school and the limited availability of resources, the report said.

The committee suggested two ways the school system could lower the per-student cost or the school's expenses. Where enrollment is unusually low, schools could combine two grades into one class and save on teacher salaries, the report said.

The system also could change the school's boundary lines to allow more children to attend. Such a change would lower the per-student costs at some schools, but have no effect on the system's overall budget, the report said.