Loudoun’s four smallest schools were pulled from the budget chopping block with an 11th hour, 6-3 vote Tuesday night.
The vote came three weeks after Loudoun County School Board members agreed to formally consider closing the schools, and take the first legal steps to do so, to save $2 million a year and help bridge a $37.7 million funding gap in next fiscal year’s operating budget.
But at least two board members who said they were on the fence about the issue ultimately agreed to keep Hillsboro, Lincoln, Aldie and Hamilton elementary schools open for one more year, pushing the vote in favor of the schools.
Both Jeff Morse (Dulles) and Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said, somewhat reluctantly, they will give the small schools another year, but requested that the board committees conduct a thorough analysis of the cost to maintain and operate the four schools because the data kept changing during the hurried reconciliation process.
Morse sounded ready to vote for closing the schools, but finally said, “The bottom line is we didn’t do the process right.” His community would rather the board target money toward lowering class sizes, “so I’m supporting the small schools at the risk of my community having to go through another year of crowded schools. I don’t do that lightly… But we need to do a thorough assessment so we can put this to bed so every year western Loudoun doesn’t have to come in in a panic and try to save their schools.”
Just more than 24 hours earlier, School Board members sat through a heated five hour public hearing on the matter as close to 400 people, almost all dressed in red, came out to make their case for why the county’s smallest and oldest schools are an asset to Loudoun.
Several parents called the annual school closure threat a “political football” and accused board members of getting the public up in arms as retribution to the county Board of Supervisors for not fully funding their budget.
Kim Strassel, whose children attend Hillsboro Elementary, acknowledged that the county Board of Supervisors’ funding allocation to the school system is about 8 percent more than the current fiscal year, while enrollment is expected to grow about 3 percent.
“What’s happened here is you guys wanted a 13 percent increase and when you didn’t get it you came up with the worst possible cuts,” she said.
A handful of parents brought threats of their own, urging board members not to get too comfortable at the dais.
Ian Serotkin, an Aldie Elementary parent, said at the mic that he can’t believe the board is considering closing some of the best schools in the county and warned them of consequences: “I will do everything in my power to get anyone who votes to close these schools voted out of office... because none of you deserve to be in office.”
Several speakers questioned the operating costs for the four small schools provided by the Financial Services Department to the School Board, and others expressed concerns that shuttering the schools will create overcrowding at neighboring elementary schools and that it will ultimately result in a need for new schools as the county continues to grow.
“You have a budget problem, but saving $2 million to later pay $34 million is irrational,” Tonya Matthews, of Purcellville, said.
Before they took a vote late Tuesday, several School Board members, including Morse, called some of the speakers’ comments offensive and ugly.
“We like to say the east versus west friction isn’t there, but it really is there,” Morse said.
Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), who voted to close the schools along with Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) and Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run), responded to claims that closing those schools will only result in the need for a new school down the road.
He said spent the last few weeks digging through the county’s student enrollment history and projections, as well as the expected maintenance that the aging buildings will require over the next five years. Even as every one of the approved and pending housing developments comes on line, there is plenty of space in the western Loudoun elementary schools, he added.
“Even if we remove the four small schools [the remaining western Loudoun schools] would still be at 84 percent capacity, which is a far better capacity level than any of the other planning areas that we have,” he said.
Responding to a question from the board, Executive Director of Planning and Legislative Services Sam Adamo confirmed the more than 2,000 pending housing units are expected to generate 610 elementary students, which the remaining schools would have space to take on.
Vice Chairman Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), a vocal proponent of the small schools, pointed out that even if the schools are closed, the county will still have to maintain the buildings.
Bill Fox (Leesburg) said his vote to keep the schools operating was a philosophical one. He campaigned on providing more school choice in Loudoun, and “those small schools represent an excellent alternative to the one-size-fits-all model that we use in most of our other schools,” he said, and added that he does not believe that population growth in the western end of the county will not pick up. “I’m not willing to make the gamble for $2 million that we may in fact need to build a new $30 million school down the road.”
Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run), who voted to close the schools, called the decision the toughest vote he’ll have to make through the budget reconciliation process. He said the community he represents made it clear their focus is smaller class sizes, not the schools in the rural end of the county. “I want to keep the option open, but my community’s priority is class size.”
Hornberger and Sheridan also expressed disappointment following their vote. “It’s about choices, and we don’t have the flexibility to fund everything,” Sheridan said.
Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) praised the hundreds who spent their Monday night at the five-hour long public hearing for their dedication, saying, “They did what needed to be done. The four schools worked together and showed their community spirit.”
She also urged the communities of the small schools to continue to recruit students to transfer through the open enrollment policy. “The community schools throughout Loudoun County have a responsibility to fill their open seats.”
The search to trim the school system’s adopted $949.72 million FY15 budget comes after the county Board of Supervisors voted April 2 to hold the county budget to the equalized real estate tax rate of $1.155. The rate gives the school system $600.8 million in local funds for next fiscal year, a $47 million bump in local taxes over the current year but about $37.7 million less in local funds than the School Board has said is needed to cover the cost of 2,375 more students and the opening of three new schools on the eastern end of the county this fall.
The School Board is expected to adopt its reconciled budget Wednesday evening. Follow the final leg of budget reconciliation at leesburgtoday.com.