Loudoun County residents will decide Nov. 8 whether the county should take on $188.47 million in debt to construct five schools, renovate three others and build a fire and rescue station in Purcellville.
For the first time in 14 years, the nine projects will appear on the ballot as separate questions, allowing voters to embrace or reject the issues individually. In past years, residents have faced just two questions, one about schools and one for such county government projects as fire stations and libraries.
The Board of Supervisors decided that separate questions would give voters greater say in the school construction process. The School Board opposed the move, contending that it could pit communities against each other. A Loudoun school bond referendum has not failed in recent memory, but board members have expressed concern that voters might reject funding for one or more projects this year.
In forums such as back-to-school nights over the past several months, school officials have urged parents to vote yes for every project, even for those outside their neighborhoods.
"I would hope that everybody would see us as one large system, but I'm afraid the way the questions have been split, it has splintered the community into different areas and factions," said School Board Chairman John A. Andrews II (Potomac).
The most controversial of the school projects is the largest. Voters will be asked whether the county should sell $63.5 million in bonds to build a second high school in western Loudoun.
The School Board has decided to build the school at Fields Farm, but several members of the Purcellville Town Council and many residents there oppose the plan. They argue that the road and sewer infrastructure will not accommodate a 1,600-student school without expensive upgrades and that school facilities in and around the town already tie up traffic.
A leading opponent of putting a school on that site is, however, urging residents to vote yes on the question. Purcellville Town Council member Robert W. Lazaro Jr. said approving funding for the school does not necessarily mean it will be built at Fields Farm.
"There's a healthy debate over the school's location, but there is no doubt that the school is needed," he said.
Lazaro noted that Loudoun Valley High School, which would be relieved with the opening of the school, is already overcrowded, even though some students attend classes in trailers and the school enrolls only 10th- to 12th-graders. Eighth- and ninth-graders in western Loudoun go to Harmony Intermediate School.
If voters turn down funding for the western Loudoun high school, it would have no chance of opening on time in 2008, Andrews said.
The school system would then have to consider busing students from western Loudoun to empty seats in the east, including possibly in South Riding or in Brambleton.
"It's not a threat," Andrews said. "In my mind, it's reality. If the seats aren't there, where do they go?"
The other projects on this year's ballot include school construction designed to help the county accommodate thousands of new students each year. The projects are elementary schools in Arcola, Ashburn and Hamilton, all scheduled to open in 2007, and a middle school in the Dulles area, to open in 2008. Finally, voters will be asked whether to renovate Hillsboro, Rolling Ridge and Sugarland elementary schools.
Andrews said the renovations are needed even as the county builds new schools to ensure that children in older communities have the opportunities provided to students in new developments.
"The question is, 'Is it fair to those kids to have less than the majority of the kids in the rest of Loudoun County?' " Andrews said.