The Loudoun County School Board voted Tuesday night to shorten the school year by one or two days if the school system has missed three days or fewer because of snow or other emergencies, capping an hour-long debate and several months of discussion.

The Loudoun school year is 185 days, five days longer than required by the state, as a precaution against cancellations because of snow or other emergencies. The Loudoun school day is also longer than required by the state, meaning that students bank additional time above state requirements.

The extra days mean that Loudoun can have a fixed calendar, in which school administrators can guarantee that students will not need to attend school during spring break or into summer vacation to make up for cancellations, even in heavy snow years.

Under the new policy, adopted by a 5 to 4 vote, students and teachers will be given two days off -- probably at the end of spring break or the end of the school year -- if schools have taken three or fewer of the five days provided by April 1.

Some School Board members contended that since additional school days were added more than a decade ago as a precaution against snow, it would make sense to give those days back to students and teachers in years when low snowfall did not require them.

They also said the additional days were a good way to reward teachers, some of whom had organized a write-in campaign in support of the proposal, especially in a year when tight budgets are likely to affect salaries.

"The snow days were added to the calender in case it snows," said board member Geary M. Higgins (Catoctin). "If they are not used, it makes sense to give them back."

Several local counties, including Fairfax, shortened the school year last year because of low snowfall. Loudoun did not.

"This is a morale issue," said Claire Scholz, president of the Loudoun Education Association, which represents county teachers. "In many respects, it's similar to the bonuses that people receive in the private sector that teachers never have the opportunity to receive."

Board members opposed to the motion said the board should support as much instructional time as possible. They also said that although they sympathized with teacher concerns about pay, they did not believe that adding paid days off was the right way to show the county's gratitude.

"A vote for this resolution tells our community that this School Board may not be interested in providing the time our children need to learn," said Harry F. Holsinger (Blue Ridge), who gave a long and impassioned speech against the plan.

The proposal, approved by Higgins, John A. Andrews II (Broad Run), J. Warren Geurin (Sterling), Tom Reed (At Large) and Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles), was a compromise from the original plan urged by Higgins. That would have allowed for shortening the school year by as many as five days.

At Monday's dedication of Heritage High School in Leesburg, Principal Margaret Huckaby addressed students, families, teachers and school administrators.Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III spoke at the Heritage High dedication.