A Loudoun County School Board committee has completed the first phase of a comprehensive study of school size, a multi-month process intended to determine whether the county should build larger schools.
At Tuesday night's School Board meeting, the group distributed the results of its wide-ranging research into how Loudoun schools are built and what effect school size has on learning.
With the background complete, the committee can move forward and make recommendations this fall, said Robert F. DuPree Jr. (Dulles), chairman of the School Board's Finance and Construction Committee, which has been examining the issue.
With thousands of students joining the system each year, Loudoun is opening three to five schools a year. During the next seven years, 31 more are scheduled to open.
Confronted with mounting debt from the construction projects, several members of the Board of Supervisors have advocated building larger schools as a way to cut the number of projects from county plans and save money.
DuPree said the School Board has taken the supervisors' interest in the topic as a mandate to explore it deeply. Overall, he said, the board has found that expanding schools "is not nearly as simple as some might have thought. Changing design and sizes of buildings does have consequences."
A standard high school in Loudoun is built for 1,600 pupils, while middle schools are built for 1,200 and elementary schools for 800. The School Board voted earlier this year to add four classrooms to plans for each of the four elementary schools planned for eastern Loudoun, boosting the capacity of each to 900.
Board members have agreed that any decision to change the county's standard design to accommodate more students requires careful study. School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said in March that his staff would aid the process, but he said he thought research showed that larger schools, particularly high schools, lead to anonymity for students.
School Board member J. Warren Geurin (Sterling) said the committee might ultimately recommend building different size schools in different parts of the county. He agreed it was also possible the group could recommend sticking with the 1,600 figure for high schools.
"It's certainly possible. It's possible that [Sen. John F.] Kerry and [Sen. John] Edwards will win Virginia, too. I don't think it's likely, but it's possible," said Geurin, who is an active member of the county's Republican Committee.
Since the study was launched in March, the committee has heard from architects, lawyers, principals and athletic field managers. The members have talked about construction materials and visited 2,500-student Westfield High School in Fairfax County to provide a basis for comparison.
The committee also sifted through studies dissecting the educational impact of school size. Geurin said it was his impression from the research that smaller schools provide advantages.
"There's no question that there is terrific educational value in having smaller schools," Geurin said.
DuPree said he was still analyzing the studies in shaping his personal views on the subject.
"The number one factor we've had in mind is how does the building function as an educational institution and how would any changes affect that?" DuPree said. "If we save a few bucks here, but we compromise education, then we have failed. We have reached no conclusions about that."
Some committee sessions have lasted four or five hours, said Evan E. Mohler, assistant superintendent for support services, who has been working with the group. He said the resulting two-inch-thick binder of information is the first time school staff has compiled so much data on the topic in one place.
"There's been a lot of education," he said. "It requires you to look at what you're doing and why."
School size is a perpetually sensitive issue in Loudoun, in part because of almost yearly discussions about the economics of maintaining small elementary schools in the rural western part of the county. The schools, six of which enroll fewer than 300 students, have avid and vocal supporters. Discussions this year, however, have focused only on construction.
Committee meetings are open to the public, and DuPree promised there would be time set aside for citizen input before the committee issues makes its recommendations to the board.