When Tuscarora High School government teacher Wendy Yacoub brought an Envision Loudoun listening session to Tuscarora High School earlier this month, county planners estimate she added 500 to 600 responses to the pool of more than 2,000 the county had already collected.
“I think they responded well to the opportunity to really engage, because I don’t know that they always are asked for their input,” said Tuscarora High School librarian Mary Pellicano that day. “I think maybe after us spurring some of their ideas, I think that they were surprised that they could come up with ideas, because I don’t know that they’re always empowered to do that.”
But some supervisors and school board members are taking those opinions with a grain of salt.
The Envision Loudoun sessions are part of the county’s effort to gather public input on how it should go about revising its comprehensive plan, the documents that steer the county’s growth and development. Yacoub is the Leesburg District appointee the 26-member stakeholder steering committee that is leading that work.
Over the course of several Envision Loudoun workshops, county planners and consultants gathered input from hundreds of participants, tracking the demographics of those who attended to check for underrepresented groups by ethnicity, age, income, and gender. Unsurprisingly, young and low-income people were underrepresented. Yacoub brought the workshop to Tuscarora High School juniors and seniors.
School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), during a report to the joint School Board–Board of Supervisors committee, asked whether the students’ answer would be weighted equally to all the others.
“My initial answer is they should be,” said project manager Chris Garcia. “They are members of our community. As I alluded to, they’ll be living with some of our decisions.”
Garcia said he expected the Tuscarora High School session to yield “some really good ideas from our youngest partner.”
“Overall, I think it was a very interesting and exciting aspect of what we did,” Garcia said.
DeKenipp worried that student submissions may be off-topic or unrealistic. Other School Board members and supervisors worried that because it was done at only one school, there may be a geographic imbalance in the results.
“When you do have 50 percent of your population responding in one small geographic area, it will sway the results,” Morse said.
“I think we should give weight to what the kids are saying,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) after the meeting. “I do agree, though, that because that was only one school, we should think about the fact that it would be kind of a heavy geographical understanding about that.”
Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) pointed out that the school workshop was conducted differently from other Envision Loudoun sessions.
“Let’s not forget that when we held these community events, every table had a staff member and a stakeholder member at it,” Buona said. “So the citizens at that table were being guided, and you’ve got to make sure that when you get the input from students, that they have that same type of guidance, because land use is complicated, and it’s not something that students think about every day.”
Buona also pointed out that the students do represent a specific age demographic.
“What’s important to 16- to 18-year-olds could be very different to what’s important to an 80-year-old, so to me you don’t just say it’s all equal, and you don’t write them off,” Buona said.
Supervisors will review the consultants’ summary of the input at the first round of Envision Loudoun workshops on Feb. 7. A second round of input sessions is scheduled for July will review recommendations for the comprehensive plan that will be made after considering input from the first round. Yacoub said she saw the sessions at Tuscarora High School as a possible pilot program for workshops at all county high schools in the second round, although there are no formal plans to do that.