Debate Over Race and Class Surfaces in School Boardroom

An emotional discussion over race and class broke out among members of the Loudoun County School Board Thursday.

They gathered in the boardroom for a public hearing on Leesburg school attendance changes. But it was the board members, not the public, who took more time at the mic debating what type of school assignments would most benefit students.

Attendance changes have to be made in Leesburg to reduce overcrowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. But on Thursday several board members, for the first time publicly, said major changes should be made to fix an unfair distribution of the town’s poorest students.

The majority of board members who served from 2006 to 2011 held the philosophy that schools’ student population should be as socioeconomically balanced as possible. So when they redrew attendance boundaries in 2006 and again in 2011, they assigned students in poorer neighborhoods—including a cluster of apartments on Plaza Street with more than 200 elementary students—to schools as far as 3.5 miles from their homes. In some cases, those students are bused past three elementary schools to get to their assigned school.

The dispute was sparked Thursday night after Sam Adamo, executive director of Legislative and Planning Services, presented his department’s proposed boundary map, which calls for few changes. It leaves students in apartments near Plaza Street in Leesburg divided into three different schools several miles away.

“This look like a gerrymandered map, and I’m not sure that we’re best serving our students with it,” Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said.

She was the first to challenge the previous board’s philosophy. She pointed out that schools with the largest populations of minority students in the county pull in impressive test scores. For example, enrollment at Guilford Elementary in Sterling is made up of 79 percent English Language Learners and 74 percent of students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. Yet they tallied passing rates between 88 and 95 on the most recent state standardized exams.

School Board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) speaks during Thursday's meeting about Leesburg attendance boundaries. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)
School Board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) speaks during Thursday’s meeting about Leesburg attendance boundaries. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

“I’m going to confront this notion head on. We’re not doing anyone any favors,” she said, adding that the school system should instead provide some Leesburg schools with more staffing support as it does for schools in Sterling.

Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who was on the board during the 2006 and 2011 boundary decisions, appeared to stand alone in his opinion to evenly disperse the town’s low-income students. He defended the board’s 2011 decision, saying that it cured a stigma that some of the town’s schools had because of their high enrollment of poor students.

“My belief is that our Leesburg schools should be equal. We don’t want any schools or any students to be stigmatized,” he said, adding that schools with a disproportionate number of low-income families have fewer parent volunteers and have a tougher time raising PTA funds.

Almost every other board member spoke against that model.

A visibly emotional Brenda Sheridan, board vice chairman representing the Sterling District, confronted Marshall.

“When we use words like ‘stigmatized’ and ‘those kids’ and ‘burden’ and ‘problem’ and ‘drain,’ it’s wrong. We are talking about children,” she said. Referring to Marshall’s comment about Leesburg schools that once had a stigma, she said, “You are talking about numbers that don’t even touch my district. It is insulting to my constituents and the families in my community. I’m asking everyone to please stop using that language.”

Also speaking to Marshall’s point, Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said, as a teacher at Cool Springs Elementary, she taught many of the students that he referred to. She said many of the families wanted to be more involved in their children’s school, but the distance made it difficult.

“I had at least two families who walked across town to come to parent conferences. I don’t know too many parents who would do that,” she said. “Imagine what can happen if you have students who are living and going to school in their neighborhood.”

Jean Matteson, one of eight parents who spoke during the public hearing, applauded the board for taking a stance on what she saw as unwarranted school assignments.

“Walk from Leesburg Fire Department up to Frances Hazel Reid on Rt. 15 with no sidewalks, and then talk to us about school community. These people can’t get to their school,” she said, adding, “Why are we so afraid to have a Title I school in Leesburg?”

Federally designated Title I schools have higher levels of poor families and receive additional federal dollars. Loudoun County has six Title I schools, all in Sterling.

A couple of parents who addressed the board favored the staff’s plan because it reassigns just 149 students. It moves a neighborhood on Clubhouse Drive (known as planning zone CL 28.3) from Evergreen Mill Elementary to Catoctin Elementary, and reassigns students in a planning zone north of town (CL 03) from Lucketts Elementary to Frances Hazel Reid Elementary. It would still leave Evergreen Mill’s enrollment at 120 percent of its building capacity.

View the proposal here.

In response to questions about his plan, Adamo told board members they may want to wait a few years before making huge attendance changes. Another elementary school may be needed within the next five to seven years as houses in Tuscarora Crossing come online.

He also brought up another boundary process that unearthed a similar debate, ahead of the opening of Dominion High School in Sterling.

“That was a fairly bitter and divisive attendance zone process, and race and class were at the core of those disagreements,” he said. “Race and class are very difficult issues and that will likely emerge again.”

School Board members will likely present plans of their own within the next week. The board will hold two more public hearings—March 3 and 14—ahead of adopting a map March 29. Public hearings begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be held at the Loudoun County Government Building, 11 Harrison St. in Leesburg.

Children arrive at Evergreen Mill Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, during the morning rush hour. (Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Children arrive at Evergreen Mill Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, during the morning rush hour. (Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

dnadler@loudounnow.com
@danielle_nadler