When the homecoming parade was canceled at Potomac Falls High School last year, Sterling neighbor Michael Sziede was crestfallen.
“It’s the only community event we really have,” said the software engineer and father of two. “It’s the only time I have ever seen all my neighbors get out of their houses for anything.”
He called the school’s principal, his Loudoun County School Board member, a state delegate. He set up a Facebook page. It turned out that the permit application to the Virginia Department of Transportation had been rejected in error. The decision was reversed, clearing the way for future parades in the Northern Virginia suburb northeast of Dulles International Airport.
“A victory,” Sziede said. “But only briefly.”
The parade,which would have taken place this week, was canceled again — this time because of a financial squeeze at the sheriff’s department. Potomac Falls, like two other Loudoun high schools, has at least temporarily abandoned the time-honored tradition of spectator-lined roads filled with floats and convertibles and costumes, a pastime falling victim to the economic times.
Elizabeth Noto, the first-year principal at Potomac Falls, said the scenario reminds her of the plot from the movie “Footloose,” where a town’s teenagers fight a dancing and music ban so they can hold their senior prom. “It kind of feels like the town is against the parade,” she said.
Whether the county likes the parade or not, money is at the root of the problem.
The county sheriff’s department typically has covered the cost of providing deputies to cover special events at public schools, including parades. But this year, it asked the schools to pay.
Noto said the $1,200 price that was initially quoted for sheriff’s office staff to secure the parade would be a “huge chunk” of the budget for the school’s student council association, which funds the festivities.
Loudoun Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said his force is “spread very thin” and cannot spare staff to cover such events, so deputies must come in after-hours. He received sharp criticism from supervisors last year when his overtime budget was projected to run over by more than $2 million. But it later became clear that the issue was a symptom of broader funding concerns.
Such overruns have been common because the office is understaffed and the overtime budget has been steadily reduced, Chapman said. Most overtime funds are committed to covering holiday pay, and last year, the department was saddled with extreme weather and political events.
The supervisors ended up unfreezing vacancies to address some of the staffing concerns, but the overtime budget remains limited.
“It’s pretty tough times right now,” Chapman said.
Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) said “better management” rather than “more money” should be the answer to the department’s problems.
He said parents have a long tradition of stepping in to support their public schools. But he emphasized that the sheriff’s department needs to give people enough notice that they have time to raise the funds necessary to keep events going.
“He’s got his bills to pay, and I would like people to know what bills they are going to have to pay,” he said.
Officials at Dominion High School in Sterling signed a contract with the sheriff’s office for about $1,000 to hold a homecoming parade, said T.J. Magill, vice president of the Titans Athletic Booster Club, which picked up the tab along with the parent-teacher organization.
“It’s a big, old morale booster and community event,” Magill said. “We weren’t going to cancel it.”
Two other high schools, Park View, in Sterling, and Freedom, in South Riding, also pulled the plug on their parades.
Virginia Minshew, principal at Park View, said covering two or three hours of overtime for sheriff’s deputies was not an option. “We don’t have those kind of funds,” she said.
The parade is “a long-standing tradition in Sterling Park, so this decision was not made lightly,” Minshew said. Instead of decorating floats, the school sponsored a hall-decorating contest.
For the past two years, Potomac Falls has organized a block party to replace its parade, with food, activities and tables set up for different clubs. Noto said most students are excited about the block party.
“The freshmen and sophomores have never had a parade,” she said.
David Spage, Loudoun’s director of high school education, said schools have to take into account many factors when deciding whether to host a parade, including the cost, the paperwork involved and the inconvenience posed by shutting down roads.
“I think the notion of the tissue-paper floats from the 1980s, it’s kind of gone by the wayside,” Spage said. But many schools in the region said they still hold homecoming parades.
Sziede, a Reston native, has fond memories of his own homecoming parade, which he helped organize as a junior class president at South Lakes High School. His friends’ band played on the class float.
He said the event was going strong at Potomac Falls as recently as two years ago, with floats, convertibles and students in costumes throwing candy to the neighborhood kids.
Sziede’s children are 3 and 5 years old. “I would like this tradition to still be around when they are in high school,” he said.