School Board Members Refute ‘Segregation’ Accusations in Boundary Debate

Heated debate, shouting and a few tears were on display at the dais of the Loudoun County School Board on Monday night.

Board members took time to refute accusations from a newly created activist group that they plan to make school attendance assignments to Leesburg elementary students based on students’ race and class. Monday’s work session was the board’s first public forum since the group calling itself Educate Don’t Segregate formed a week and a half ago.

Educate Don’t Segregate, largely made up of families in Exeter and other central Leesburg neighborhoods, is protesting one of the board’s proposed attendance zone maps that would return about 700 students to schools closer to their homes. But the activist group has characterized the move as segregation because it would concentrate many of the town’s poor students and those still learning English at two schools, Leesburg and Frederick Douglass elementary schools.

The board is scheduled to adopt an attendance map Tuesday.

The attendance lines must be redrawn to reduce overcrowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary. But the board, and many Leesburg residents, are split over whether to reassign just a few hundred students to address that problem or make major changes, and reassign as many as 2,000 students, to reverse what some see as an unfair distribution of students in apartments and town homes near Plaza Street. The current attendance map, adopted in 1997, has students in that neighborhood attending five different schools, and being bussed past two or three closer schools.

Debbie Rose (Algonkian), Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) and others said they spent much of their spring break last week “debunking rumors” spread by the Educate Don’t Segregate group.

“I want to let people know the folks throwing out this argument that they care about diversity have other intentions,” Rose said. “What you really care about is that you don’t move. And what you really care about is your child doesn’t have over 50 percent English language learners and kids qualifying for free and reduced lunch in your child’s schools.”

The proposal the activist group opposes, known as Plan 12, would also reassign many in the Exeter subdivision from Leesburg Elementary to Frances Hazel Reid Elementary. They have voiced their support for a plan drafted by board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg), known as Plan 6, which would reassign just enough students to reduce Evergreen Mill’s overcrowding and leave most of the boundaries in central Leesburg unchanged.

Both Rose and Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) read an email from a parent who, speaking against Plan 12, said he did not want Leesburg to turn into Sterling Park, which has schools made up of more than 70 percent of low-income and non-English speaking students. “Do you want MS-13, a notorious gang, to be roaming the streets of Leesburg preying on our kids?” the email read.

Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) listened with his face in his hands.

Sheridan responded, “This is inaccurate information. I live in Sterling Park. It is not a dangerous community.” She also noted that the email was not sent to her but forwarded from another board member, adding, “If you feel this way, have the guts to say it to my face.”

Hornberger and Rose pointed to elementary schools in Sterling Park that have a high percentage of English language learners and made big academic improvements in recent years. They said if Plan 12 is adopted, the Leesburg schools could mimic the techniques that have proved successful there.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to make sure we are meeting the needs of our kids, not worrying about housing values or talk of stigmatizing certain schools,” Hornberger said. He also took issue with the term segregation to describe Plan 12, drawn up by him and Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin). “It’s segregation to say, if you live in the Plaza Street area, you can’t attend a school closest to you like every other kid in the county,” he said. “We have to get beyond that rhetoric because it’s not helpful.”

Board member Joy Maloney (Broad Run), who shares Marshall’s support for Plan 6, countered some of her colleagues’ comments, and accused them of using the meeting to “grandstand” as opposed to glean helpful information from the staff ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

She noted that Loudoun County was one of the last jurisdictions in the nation to desegregate its schools. “So when we talk about Leesburg citizens not being genuine when they’re talking about desegregation, we have to realize that they have a perspective that maybe we don’t have,” she said.

Jeff Morse (Dulles) voiced his support for maintaining the current model of evenly distributing academically at-risk students, for now. He noted that the school system integrates special education students in general education classrooms, and dispersing English language learners throughout the town’s schools is a similar model. He also said he’d prefer to wait a couple of years to see if the teaching model used in Sterling schools continues to be successful, and then have a larger discussion on how best to improve the learning environment for Leesburg students.

“There may be a solution out there that doesn’t require the moving of 1,900 children,” he said.

Board members on both sides agreed that important issues surfaced during Leesburg’s contentious boundary process over the past several weeks. Sheridan suggested that the board form an equity committee after an attendance map is adopted to continue the discussion about how to provide every student the best education, no matter their socioeconomic status.

“The best thing that has come out of what I’m calling the Plan 12 saga is this honest and difficult conversation that we have to have,” she said. “We need to develop policies that are threats of inequity and keep this conversation going.”

The board is scheduled to adopt a map at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. See each of the proposed boundary plans here.

A rally organized by members of the Loudoun chapter of NAACP is planned before the meeting at 5 p.m. in front of the Loudoun school administration building, at 21000 Education Court in Ashburn.

[See more on the boundary process: “Debate Over Race and Class Surface in School Boardroom.”]