A proposed policy that will guide the process should Loudoun County want to close a school building was debated for the eighth time in a committee meeting—and for another two hours—last night.
The special meeting of the School Board’s Finance and Facilities Committee was called to have a final round of discussion on the policy before taking a final vote Feb. 13. Any vote at the committee level is merely a recommendation to the full board.
Crafting the policy was put into motion after last year’s budget season, when four School Board members favored holding a public hearing to consider closing Lincoln and Hamilton elementary schools. The board members who opposed closing the schools during the time crunch of budget season suggested the board form an ad hoc committee to draft a policy that would guide such a process.
A month later, the Legislative and Policy Committee got to work on it. After that group worked for a few months, Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) brought the debate over to the Finance and Facilities Committee, which he chairs.
School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) and Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), who also sit on the committee, have accused DeKenipp, a vocal proponent of keeping the small schools open, of purposefully keeping the policy from going to the full board for a vote.
During last night’s special meeting, Morse and Sheridan responded to DeKenipp’s and some parents’ opposition to crafting school closure guidelines. They said that the policy would actually make it more difficult to close a school because it would put parameters on the process.
“A lot of folks seem to view this as the nail that we’re going to use to nail a coffin on small schools. Not true. This is putting in place a lot of different avenues that we need to look at before we would close a school,” Morse said.
Sheridan asked school division’s legal counsel Stephen DeVita to clarify, “If I made a motion to delete this policy and never talk about it again, could we still close a school?”
“Yes, absolutely,” DeVita said.
“See, for me this policy is instructions for the board, the ability to have dialogue about this,” Sheridan said. “It puts parameters in place that the board would have to follow.”
The policy the committee was initially considering stated that a facility could be closed for any reason that “would justify retiring or repurposing a facility,” and did not specify a timeline or a process to inform the public.
Waterford resident Dawn Thomas, one of eight parents who expressed concern about the policy at recent committee meetings, encouraged the board to inform everyone who lives near the school when, and if, the building was being considered for closure. “Because it will affect property values,” she said.
The three committee members agreed to more clearly spell out the process, including adding the public notice requirements under Virginia law. If the board was considering shutting down a school, it would first have to hold a public hearing and advertise that public hearing in a newspaper of general circulation at least 10 days prior to the public hearing.
Committee members also agreed that a decision to retire a facility would need to come nearly two years ahead of the actual closure. That would give the superintendent time to make any changes to the Capital Improvement Program, which serves as a six-year planning document for the school system’s capital costs.
At DeKenipp’s request, the Finance Services Department presented the committee with the per-pupil costs for a small school, medium school and large school. According to their report, Lincoln Elementary, with an enrollment of 100, costs the school system $17,813 per student. Catoctin Elementary, with 674 students, costs $11,370 per student. The per-pupil cost at Liberty Elementary, with 1,066 students, is $9,350.
DeKenipp told the staff that those figures didn’t tell the full story because they did not include all of the operating, maintenance and capital costs. The cost of employees is a cost that will likely move with the students, he said. “It’s fluid, but the operation and maintenance costs are not.”
He asked the staff to run a more detailed report that includes per-pupil capital costs at 10 school buildings, with varying enrollments and locations, and bring it to the next committee meeting.
Parent Jenna Alexander cautioned School Board members to tread lightly as they craft the guidelines for school closures, saying, “I think this unintentionally has an opportunity to create an east-west divide for the schools, which we’ve worked very hard not to foster.”
School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), who is not a member of the Finance and Facilities Committee but attended the meeting, said if the board uses this policy to consider shuttering schools that are under enrolled, then it’s not just western Loudoun schools that would be targeted.
“There’s the assumption that this is an east versus west thing,” she said. “But in reality there are eastern Loudoun schools—one using just 60 percent of its building capacity—that should be considered under these same guidelines.”