Just a few weeks before classes are to start, a two-day review in Loudoun County Circuit Court will answer the lingering question of where a few dozen Leesburg elementary school students will be going to school.
On Tuesday, residents of two Leesburg communities who were unhappy with the previous Loudoun School Board’s re-zoning process for Leesburg elementary schools will have a chance to plead their case in court.
The School Board voted in December to adopt a zoning plan that relocated about 1,000 students to different schools this fall, shifting the boundaries to allow for the opening of Frederick Douglass Elementary School. About 600 of the relocated students were assigned to the new school.
But parents of some students in the Potomac Station and Beacon Hill communities were distraught over the new boundaries and, in January, filed separate petitions for judicial review to request that the rezoning decision be revisited. The two cases will be presented together before Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne, a process that is expected to take two days.
Members of the Potomac Station community, known as CL-19 on the boundary map, wanted their children to stay at John W. Tolbert Elementary School rather than relocate to Frederick Douglass. Petitioners from the Beacon Hill community protested the reassignment of their students from Frances Hazel Reid Elementary to Catoctin Elementary School, a move that reflected the School Board’s effort to balance the number of low-income students and English language learners across Leesburg’s nine elementary schools.
Wayde Byard, spokesman for the Loudoun public schools, said earlier in the year that parents are frequently frustrated by the rezoning process — particularly when neighborhoods are split — but that families usually acclimate quickly to their new school communities. The upcoming review marks the first time that a school boundary dispute has been brought to court in Loudoun, he said.
John C. Whitbeck Jr., a lawyer representing Eric Dekenipp as the lead petitioner in the CL-19 case, said the School Board failed to abide by its own bylaws when considering the realignment of the boundaries to accommodate Frederick Douglass.
“Our position has always been that we won’t want them to redo the entire boundary process. All we’re asking is that this very small portion of Potomac Station, that’s about [0.2] miles from Tolbert and consists of less than 35 children . . . be put back in Tolbert,” he said.
Whitbeck said two former School Board members whom he declined to identify were prepared to testify on behalf of the community. He also said that the current School Board had rejected settlement proposals that could have resolved the matter amicably.
“Those proposals have been, very simply, to just let these less than 35 children return to the school . . . that they can walk to safely,” he said.
Noting that some families have been granted hardship waivers that will allow them to keep their children enrolled at Tolbert, Whitbeck said “there’s obviously not an issue with overcrowding concerns”.
Michael Petkovich, an attorney for several petitioners from the Beacon Hill community, echoed Whitbeck’s claim that the School Board had ignored its own bylaws but said that this clients are looking for a different outcome.
He said that the petitioners he represents “are not as result-
oriented. It’s not that they just want their community to be placed in a specific school. Their biggest issue has to do with the complete lack of appropriate process . . . they feel that there may be other agendas involved.”
The bylaws cited by both cases involve the criteria that are to be used, to the greatest extent possible, to help guide the board’s decision about how to draw the new boundary lines, including the proximity of students to their schools and the need to maintain demographically balanced school communities.
Petkovich said his clients hope that the court will find that the School Board’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious . . . and they want the decision to be made from scratch again and, this time, do it according to the process.”
Byard declined to address the case specifically, saying the school system does not comment on pending litigation.
John Stevens, a former chairman of the Loudoun School Board, said he was disappointed that the case is moving forward.
Stevens, who voted against the boundary plan after expressing concern about splitting the Potomac Station community, said he sympathized with the petitioners’ viewpoint, even though he disagrees with their claim that the School Board had violated its bylaws.
“I see people who really love their school, and they want to go to the school that’s closest to their neighborhood. . . . That’s totally understandable,” he said. “And with the Beacon Hill folks, I saw good parents who loved their kids and love their school, trying hard to reach the best solution.”
But he said he was dismayed that the issue has escalated to this point.
“I think that the downside of this approach is that it is eating up taxpayer resources, and I think [their case] is unlikely to be found to have any merit,” Stevens said. “I also think that, just from a student and parent perspective, this is going to hold these folks back from becoming a part of a new school community that I think is going to be a really great school community.”