There were hundreds of voices, and one message.
“Save our schools!” chanted a standing-room-only crowd of parents, students, educators and community members who packed the board meeting room of the Loudoun County School Administration Building on Monday night, waving signs and wearing red to signify their determination to defend four of the county’s small, historic schools against the mounting threat of being closed.
The western Loudoun elementary schools — Hillsboro, Aldie, Hamilton and Lincoln — are potentially on the chopping block, as the Loudoun School Board reconciles its budget, a process that demands nearly $38 million in cuts to close a funding gap left by the county’s adopted fiscal 2015 budget.
The possibility of shuttering the small community schools has been raised in many budget discussions over the years, as the School Board has scrutinized the cost of maintaining aging facilities and providing services to small student populations. But this month, School Board members took the additional step of scheduling Monday’s public hearing, laying the legal groundwork necessary before the schools can be closed or consolidated.
The communities surrounding the historic schools responded in force. At the start of the hours-long meeting, board members urged those in the audience to stay quiet and to lift their hands and signs silently when they supported a particular speaker’s message. But at several points during the night, the crowd burst into passionate applause and cheers, as more than 175 speakers took their turns at the microphones to defend their schools. They cited records of academic excellence, the preservation of communities and the value of historical legacy as some of the many reasons the schools should stay open.
About $2 million would be saved by closing the schools, according to county staff reports. Many parents countered that statistic by pointing out that the school buildings are paid for, and that two of the schools — Aldie, with 131 students, and Lincoln, with 135 — operate well below the county’s average cost-per-pupil of about $11,600.
Dozens of speakers said that the small community schools were a deciding factor for families considering relocating to Loudoun.
“Did any of you go to rural schools?” asked Deb Glass, who said her family moved to Loudoun from California. “If you haven’t, then maybe you don’t know that they’re really great. . . . We chose our specific home because of Aldie Elementary.”
Ben Cates echoed that sentiment, and said the small schools should be preserved as educational models. “School districts across this country are trying to create schools like the ones you’re threatening to destroy, because study after study has shown that small schools produce better outcomes,” he said.
Heidi Grisius, whose sons attend Lincoln Elementary, asked the board members whether they had any sense of uncertainty about the prospect of closing the schools. “Because, like in the court system, if there’s reasonable doubt, you should be voting to keep us open,” she said. “This decision is irreversible.”
Many residents conveyed the deep emotional and historical ties between the schools and their surrounding communities. Jennifer Perricone said she graduated from Aldie Elementary and wanted her children to do the same. “A couple of decades ago, my mother was here fighting the same fight to keep Aldie open,” she said. “Our heritage is something to be protected. Our heritage is not a budget cut.”
Several parents pointed out that School Board members have often supported school choice, an option that has many families choosing smaller learning environments for students who need extra attention.
Sarah Livingston said her son Alex had problems focusing in class before he came to Hillsboro Elementary, where he is now thriving. But if the school closes, “Alex will be swallowed up in a large classroom with teachers and students who he doesn’t know,” she said. “My son is more than a dollar sign.”
Margaret Taylor, a parent at Lincoln Elementary, joined several speakers who questioned whether the threat of closing the small schools was the result of a particularly contentious budget debate between school officials and county supervisors.
“Our children and our schools and our communities, and the centers of our communities, are being used as a pawn in the center of a debate between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board,” she said. “Please don’t let that happen.”
Students from all four of the schools also made it clear that they would join their parents and teachers in the fight to save the schools. Kat Livingston, a fifth-grader at Hillsboro, said she launched a petition to save her school, collecting 225 signatures. Rachel Hollinger, a fifth-grader at Aldie, compiled a book filled with comments from students about their school. “I like Aldie because it is small and it is fun to learn at,” said one. “My great grandmother went here,” said another.
Finn Gustavson, a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary, was among the many students who took a turn at the microphone Tuesday to ask that his school be saved.
“Lincoln is old but awesome,” he told the School Board. “Just because something is new, doesn’t mean it is better.”
Monday’s public hearing did not include any comments or feedback from the School Board members. Their budget discussion was scheduled to continue Tuesday, after the Local Living deadline. School officials have said that they plan to adopt a reconciled budget by the end of the month.