First- and second-grade students will be combined in one classroom at Middleburg Elementary School next year, and the five children expected to enroll in kindergarten will be sent to Aldie Elementary, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III announced this week.

Hatrick said the move was required by shrinking enrollment at the school and budget cuts across the school system. He insisted that he has no plans to recommend closing Middleburg Elementary, the county's oldest school, or any of the county's other small rural schools. But he said that increased elementary-class sizes countywide, adopted last month because of budget cuts, necessitate examining the best way to run small schools.

"Unless we achieve some of these savings, we will be approaching 30 students in a class in other schools," he said. "There is a realization point here that we may need to look at a different way of doing business."

Hatrick said it might be time to consider merging attendance boundaries for Middleburg and Aldie elementary schools. Then, one school could enroll students in kindergarten to second grade and the other grades three to five. That proposal has been considered and rejected because of parent opposition.

Hatrick said that under his current plan, kindergarten students would return to Middleburg from Aldie for first grade and that the changes would be evaluated based on future enrollment.

Still, nine Middleburg parents complained bitterly at the School Board meeting Wednesday. They said they saw the changes as the first steps toward closing the 92-year-old school, if not intentionally, then through attrition.

"It doesn't take too much figuring to look in the future and say this isn't the shrinking of Middleburg Elementary, it's the death of Middleburg Elementary," said Martha Cotter, a former PTO president at the school.

They also argued that transporting kindergarten students to Aldie, about five miles away, would make for long bus rides for small children.

"Putting the children on Route 50 at that time of day is unthinkable," said Alix Coolidge, who has a child who will be in kindergarten next year.

Loudoun is the only county in the Washington region that simultaneously operates small rural elementary schools and large suburban ones. Nine Loudoun elementary schools enroll fewer than 300 students, while 14 have more than 600. With an enrollment of about 82, Middleburg is the county's smallest school.

Small schools are a historically touchy issue for school boards, which discuss almost yearly whether they are worth the price. Parents who extol the value of small schools protest loudly whenever the discussion arises, and rumors of impending closures periodically sweep small communities. Under School Board policy, Hatrick must give the board at least one year's notice before recommending that a school be closed.

The combined first- and second-grade class, expected to have 16 students, will be taught by a teacher and a teacher's assistant, said Ronald E. Dyer, director of elementary education. He said that the students would benefit from close interaction with the instructors and that the curriculum would cover all of Virginia's first- and second-grade Standards of Learning requirements.

Dyer said that combined classrooms, which he said have been used successfully in Loudoun, could be a possibility for several county schools.

Several School Board members told the parents that they were committed to keeping Loudoun's small schools open. At the same time, each board member said the panel supported the superintendent's decision.

"I don't think the burden should be on us in the east to increase our class sizes into the thirties," said John A. Andrews II (Broad Run).

Harry F. Holsinger (Blue Ridge), who represents the parents, blamed the changes on the Board of Supervisors, which approved $12 million less for schools than the School Board requested for next year.

"If you have concerns about why the School Board budget was cut so we had to do this, you're talking to the wrong board," he told them.

School Board Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles) said shrinking enrollments at schools such as Middleburg mean that solutions like Hatrick's might be the only way to keep them open.

"If you want to preserve your small schools, the way to do it is through flexibility and maybe some new ideas, not through ultimatums and threats," said Vogric, who noted that he has voted several times to keep small schools open.

At Wednesday's meeting, the board also adopted new attendance boundaries for Smart's Mill Middle School and Briar Woods and Freedom high schools. The board accepted a plan recommended by school planners for the Leesburg middle school and adopted a plan for the two eastern high schools crafted by member Robert F. DuPree (Dulles).

All new boundary plans are available from the school system or at www.loudoun.k12.va.us/planning.

Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III says he does not plan to recommend closing 92-year-old Middleburg Elementary.