For 13 consecutive years, Loudoun County residents have agreed each November to let the county take on millions of dollars in debt to build and renovate schools.
But parent Paige Bagis is worried that the 14th year may not be the charm.
In an effort to give voters more say, the Board of Supervisors decided last week to ask residents separately about each of eight planned school projects scattered across the county.
In years past, voters faced only two questions on their local bond referendum, one for all school projects and one for other county projects such as community centers and fire stations.
Bagis said she fears the new method could raise the odds that voters will vote no or choose not to vote on needed projects, especially those far from their neighborhoods.
"It seems an interesting way to put these out there, because different areas of the county will be affected differently by those different questions," she said. "Will [voters] just skip past this? Say, oh, that one is in western Loudoun, so I'm not affected by that and skip it? It's a cause for a lot of concern."
Bagis is the immediate past president of Arcola Elementary School's PTA. One of the eight projects on this year's ballot would provide funding to tear down Arcola Elementary, which has a capacity of 407 children, and build a school that can house 875 to accommodate new students in the area.
Voters will also be asked about building two other elementary schools, a middle school and a high school and renovating three older schools.
Supervisor Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run) said during the board's discussion that by letting residents vote on projects separately, they will have a better opportunity to have their voices heard. She suggested that if some projects do not pass, residents might be sending a message to the School Board.
"This will be an interesting vote," she said at Tuesday's meeting. "We may have to do some things differently in terms of schools if the voters decide they want to cut back a little bit."
Supervisor D.M. "Mick" Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run), who also supported separating the questions, said he "put a lot of trust in the voters. I trust them to look at the facts, objectively, and make that decision by themselves."
Sarah Enstminger, who until recently was president of a countywide parents organization, said that she thinks residents will vote for projects near their homes but hopes they take the time to learn about projects in parts of the county they know less well.
"I don't guess there's any other way to look at it than this: We're going to have to trust our neighbors," she said.
Kim McDevitt, who sits on the PTO board at Ashburn's Mill Run Elementary School, said she supported the move.
"It's about time," she said. "Sometimes you may not agree with all of it, but you're kind of stuck with it because one part is so important."
The matter of what should appear on this year's bond referendum has been particularly contentious. For one thing, the Republican majority on the Board of Supervisors has expressed unhappiness with the rising cost of building and renovating schools since taking office three years ago.
Several supervisors have also said they were especially concerned about an item asking voters to take on $65.5 million in debt to build a high school in western Loudoun. The School Board wants to build the school on a property north of Purcellville known as Fields Farm, a choice that has sparked local opposition and fears that road and sewer improvements would not be completed in time for the building to open in 2008.
The site has been so controversial that the supervisors debated Tuesday delaying the project and not putting it on the November ballot. School Board members at the meeting told them, however, that if the building does not open on time, some students in the west will have to be bused across the county to Ashburn.
The yearly school bond referendum is often seen as a measure of public support for government projects. In fact, it does not determine the fate of construction. Instead, it permits a certain method of funding, the sale of general obligation bonds.
Both the supervisors and the School Board are on record as agreeing that all the school projects on November's ballot are needed.
That raises the question of how to pay for projects that voters do not approve.
School Board members said they are not sure and instead will focus on convincing residents that the county's explosive growth makes construction necessary. Meanwhile, they say they will also argue that renovations are needed at some of the county's oldest elementary schools.
"We're focusing on Plan A. Plan A is to get the bonds approved," said School Board member Robert F. DuPree Jr. (Dulles). "Plan B is to get the bonds approved. Plan C is to get the bonds approved. And Plan D? It's see Plans A through C."