A small schoolhouse has anchored the village of Aldie, in western Loudoun County, since before the Civil War began. John Hutchison’s grandmother attended. His father was principal there. Hutchison went to the school there. Now his children are among the 130 or so students at Aldie Elementary, building robots before heading home to their farm.
But pressure keeps building in Loudoun, one of the fastest-growing jurisdictions in the country, to build big, modern schools and to squeeze the maximum value out of every dollar in the school budget.
Almost every year, there are rumors that Aldie and the other small schools in the rural western part of the county will be shut down. It doesn’t make sense to keep pouring money into old schools that are more expensive to maintain and operate and, in some cases, chronically underenrolled, some Loudoun School Board members argue. Especially when some schools in the booming east are overcrowded and funding is tight. At one rural small school, the operating cost per student is almost double the county average.
School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) recently told parents that it wasn’t a question of if the small schools would close, but when.
Now Aldie residents have a plan — a surprising one. They so badly want to save their small school that they are campaigning to make it bigger. On a recent snowy night, they presented the School Board with an architect’s plans to build a two-story wing that would dwarf the existing school, with enough classrooms to bump enrollment as high as 450 students. They have asked school officials to study the proposal, include it in their plans and begin construction in 2019.
“If we lose the school,” said Deborah Deal-Blackwell, who is helping with the campaign, “we’re very much afraid we’ll lose the village.”
Laura Tekrony, who has led the effort to save the school, described Loudoun’s transformation as worrisome to some village residents. “There is anxiety because of how quick the growth has been.”
Aldie — site of a Civil War battle and a crossroads with a school, an old mill, a post office, a bakery, and a few stores and churches — lies on the line between the old Loudoun and the new. To the west, rutted dirt roads meander past stone walls and horses at pasture. To the east, shiny black asphalt traces street grids and cul-de-sacs with densely packed new homes.
At shops in Aldie and further west, everyone stops to chat and gossip, said Wally Lunceford, one of the owners of the Aldie Peddler. At the Harris Teeter, a few miles east in the new suburban development at Stone Ridge, people walk the aisles quickly. It’s too big a place to know everyone around.
“What’s a village without a school?” said Rosanna Smith, another Aldie shop owner, who had stopped by Lunceford’s shop to share homemade lunch with him.
“It’s important for our villages to have these central community gathering spaces. The school has the biggest parking lot in the village, the biggest playing fields, the biggest auditorium,” Smith said. “When we have town halls, there is no other place like that in the village of Aldie to get together.”
Without the school, Hutchison said, people wouldn’t be stopping in at the stores in the village or at the post office after dropping off their kids; they wouldn’t be getting their car fixed at the garage. “People are going to find other places to go to take care of their daily routine,” he said. “Once you take away part of the lifeblood of the community, it becomes a pass-through.”
A few miles to the west, parents at another tiny school, Middleburg Elementary, received conditional approval this year to become the first charter school in Northern Virginia.
But the Aldie community’s proposal to save its school doesn’t turn its back on the fast-growing east. It embraces it.
Aldie’s per-pupil operating cost is slightly lower than the county average, in part because it shares a principal and other staff with Middleburg. And like the other small schools, its land and building have long since been paid off.
Still, Hornberger, the School Board chairman, said closing a cluster of small western schools that includes Aldiecould save the district an estimated $2.5 million a year.
The parent group made its pitch to the School Board at the urging of some board members. But the group hasn’t presented a formal proposal to the school system’s professional staff, said Wayde Byard, a spokesman for the school system, so “no evaluation or analysis has been performed from a zoning, attendance or construction perspective.”
Hornberger is skeptical of the proposal for a number of reasons. He said the school was built on a flood plain, so adding a large wing would require buying land nearby. He said there is no immediate need for more capacity in that part of the county because a new elementary school will open near Aldie next year.
And he said the system’s immediate critical need is to reduce operating costs. Aldie’s small student population could be shifted into a large school. “We’re trying to close a $38 million gap [between] the budget we have proposed and the money we have to meet it,” Hornberger said.
County Supervisor Janet S. Clarke (R-Blue Ridge), however, said recently that she was interested to hear the details — as did a couple of School Board members. Clarke said she thought it was possible that expanding the Aldie school could yield cost savings for the school system.
Hutchison, the longtime Aldie resident and school parent, said he loves the idea of saving the elementary school through growth. He said a new wing would be a natural evolution for the school, which would still center the village without ignoring the area’s changes.
Everyone loves the small-town feel of the school, Tekrony said. Some worry that if expanded, it will lose that. But compared with the new schools, she said, “it will still be small.”