School Board talks over how to close a $5.5 million budget shortfall kicked off tonight with a heated debate over whether to close Lincoln and Hamilton elementary schools.
Board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) made the motion to hold a public hearing on consolidating those two schools into Kenneth W. Culbert Elementary near Hamilton; the law requires the board give a 10-day notice ahead of a public hearing on potential school closures.
“This vote is about keeping the conversation open,” Hornberger said. “This is an opportunity for us to save $1.15 million of the $5.5 million that we have to cut.”
The motion ultimately failed, with just Hornberger, Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), Debbie Rose (Algonkian), and Tom Marshall (Leesburg) in support, but not after an almost 45-minute debate.
Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) questioned the staff’s cost-saving estimates of closing the two schools, and stressed that sending Lincoln and Hamilton students to Culbert would mean longer and costlier bus rides. “And, just keep in mind that just over six miles away, we have schools that are overcrowded,” he said, noting that the growth in the Leesburg area may require a new school at some point. “To me it makes absolutely no sense to close schools during a time of growth.”
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) and Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) had similar sentiments. They questioned why board members want to shutter schools when the board is facing a relatively small funding gap. “We’ve had $20 million gaps and we have not had to close schools to make things work,” Turgeon said.
Morse, Turgeon and Beth Huck (At Large) suggested the matter be looked at as part of an ad hoc committee outside of the tight timeline of the budget season. “It should be done at the beginning of the process rather than now because we all know what’s going to happen, it’s going to become a political play,” Turgeon said.
Marshall, who sided with Hornberger, argued that the aging buildings are too costly to keep up.
Rose said, “This is a very rationale, very practical option. There is room at nearby schools.”
Lincoln Elementary’s current enrollment of just more than 100 includes more than 20 students who do not live in that school’s attendance zone but attend through the school system’s special permission, or open enrollment, policy. Staff members have said that Culbert Elementary has space for the roughly 82 students who live in the Lincoln attendance zone and the 159 Hamilton Elementary students.
Joy Maloney (Broad Run), the lone eastern Loudoun representative who opposed closing the schools, reminded her colleagues that just two weeks earlier they were pointing to the number of students who live outside of the Middleburg area yet choose to attend Middleburg Community Charter School as a sign of success. “I don’t see why we want to take away one of our high performing schools like that,” she said.
This is a familiar debate. Almost every year, closing the county’s smallest schools is brought up as an option to save money. Three years ago, the board had enough votes to hold a public hearing on the matter, but ultimately the vote to shut down the schools had only the support of three board members, Hornberger, Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) and Kevin Kuesters, who then represented the Broad Run District.
“This is getting exhausting,” Cara Orenzuk, president of Lincoln Elementary’s PTO, said after the meeting. She attends budget meetings almost every year to urge the board to keep Lincoln, the county’s oldest school, in operation. “It’s not just a building. It’s like a family. But they don’t understand that. … It’s about numbers to them. But I can tell you, we don’t cost any more per child than any other school.”
County Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge) called the discussion that played out in the school boardroom “an unfortunate political ploy that’s become all too familiar this time of year.”
He said there is no good reason to close the schools. “Our small schools are high performing, excellent institutions and they are an integral part of maintaining western Loudoun’s rural and historic character. Parents and their children who attend are passionate about keeping them open,” he said. “Many thanks to Chairman Morse and Board Members Turgeon, DeKenipp, Huck, and Maloney for their support.”
The School Board asked Superintendent Eric Williams to return to the April 18 meeting with a list of recommended line items that could be trimmed from the operating budget for next fiscal year. Although the budget adopted by the county Board of Supervisors provides a 7.7 percent single-year increase in local funding, it still falls $5.5 million short of the School Board’s funding request of $1.12 billion.
A few School Board members said they were frustrated with how some supervisors—who control local public schools’ funding—characterize the School Board during the annual budget debate. Sheridan said she was offended to hear one supervisor describe school leaders like irresponsible teenagers and talk about the budget process as if supervisors were handing over the car keys or an allowance.
Sheridan stressed that the School Board’s adopted budget is not a wish list, but a list of needs first vetted by department heads, then the superintendent, and finally by the board. “The truth is we don’t include everything we want or even need. … And I think we deserve more credit than we have been given.”