After more than six months of study, a School Board committee has recommended Loudoun schools be built to accommodate 10 to 14 percent more students -- far fewer than some proponents of larger schools had urged.
The committee suggested new high schools be built for 1,800 students, rather than the 1,600 students now considered standard. It recommended middle schools be built for 1,350 rather than 1,184 students and elementary schools for 875 instead of 796.
The School Board will hold a public hearing before taking official action to change school sizes. Middle and high schools under construction will not be affected. Two new elementary schools are already being built for the larger number of students.
Loudoun builds schools using common plans, and board member Robert F. DuPree Jr. (Dulles) said the recommended numbers represent the most students that could be accommodated simply by adding classrooms to the existing designs. Any more, he said, would require a complete redesign, including larger cafeterias, libraries and hallways.
"If we went any bigger, we'd have to make some serious modification in our design that wasn't, in our minds, warranted," said DuPree, who chairs the committee that examined the issue.
But larger schools might also mean fewer emotional school boundary changes. "This could minimize or at least postpone disruption for a year" for some students, he said. "That's an intangible benefit that you simply can't put on a ledger."
Board Chairman John A. Andrews II (Potomac) said he started out thinking that much larger schools might make sense but that he has become convinced otherwise. Schools for more than 2,000 students might be difficult to manage and hurt education, he said.
"The question is, what can you get your arms around without sacrificing achievement and how well the schools are run?" he said.
The School Board embarked on the discussion after several board members and county supervisors persistently complained the county was building schools too small, given its rapid growth. Loudoun high schools are smaller than those in surrounding counties. Proponents of larger schools argued that the larger facilities could accommodate more students in fewer buildings, thereby saving money.
"I understand some of the arguments for why people want a smaller school size, but when you're faced with the kinds of population growth that we're dealing with, you have to have some kind of compromises," said Supervisor D.M. "Mick" Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland), who has advocated building bigger but said he would reserve judgment on the committee's suggested numbers.
"If slightly larger schools will bring us the result that we can build fewer of them, that's a compromise we can live with," he said.
School system planning director Sam C. Adamo said the recommendations that emerged might result in building fewer schools, but only in the long run. "You can't really look at these changes and say they'll save you schools, because they don't," he said.
The recommendations were presented at a School Board meeting Tuesday night with a busy agenda dominated by numerous discussions about how to best deal with the system's dramatic yearly enrollment growth.
Board members agreed unanimously that the school system should demolish the 407-student Arcola Elementary School and build a larger school in the same place, to open in 2007. Arcola students will attend other area schools for a year during construction.
Finally, members learned that 44,011 students had enrolled in county schools by Sept. 30, the usual day for counting yearly attendance. The number represents an 8 percent rise over last year but is 1.6 percent lower than Adamo and his planning staff predicted.
In an interview, Adamo said the school system saw fewer new elementary students than in past years and theorized that rising home prices might be discouraging young families from moving to the county. He predicted the county will continue to see impressive growth in future years, but it might be starting to slow.
"If the prices continue to escalate, we'll start to see that that will offset the growth somewhat," he said. "It will moderate it. It won't stop it."