Work on a proposed policy that has been tweaked and debated for months in committee meetings came to a screeching halt when it was first introduced to the full School Board tonight.
The policy was intended to offered the board guidance should it want to close a school building.
But the policy didn’t have enough support on the board to bring it to a vote or even send it back into committee for more work. Instead, the board voted 6-1-2 to lay the motion on the table, suspending consideration of the policy. Tom Marshall (Leesburg) was the one board member who supported adopting the policy over tabling the motion; Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) and board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) were absent for the vote.
The policy did not recommend closing any schools, but provided rules for the School Board to notify the community and gather public input, laid out factors for the board to consider, and ensured that the board consider the impact on attendance boundaries.
When it was clear that board members were not in agreement on moving the policy to a vote, Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) suggested it be tabled or, reluctantly, moved back to the committee to be reworked. “At this point, I’m not willing to put it on as an action item,” he said.
The demise of the proposal comes after board members and school system staff worked on it at the committee level for 10 months. Creating the policy was first put into motion after last year’s budget debate, 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, DeKenipp brought the debate into his Finance and Facilities Committee.
DeKenipp has been the most vocal opponent of the policy and was accused by other board members of trying to use his position as chairman of the Finance and Facilities Committee to block a vote on the proposal in committee. At Tuesday’s meeting, he said it would be inefficient for the board to close any schools when growth in the county is continuing. Plus, he added, the policy provides few specifics about what would constitute a school’s closure. “It’s too broad and open to various interpretations,” he said.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) also described the policy as weak and too vague. “It says to look at the effectiveness of the learning environment. What does that mean? Efficiency of facility. Again what exactly does that mean? It’s bad policy.”
In response, Morse, who supported the policy in committee, said it cannot specifically spell out what criteria must be met before the board shutters a school because there are too many variables. “How do you quantify historic value, community needs and desire? That’s why board members not machines make decisions on whether we need to close down a small school.”
He also stressed that he is not out to close small schools, and noted that he’s been a supporter of Loudoun’s two charter schools since their beginning. “But we do need a framework that if we do move forward with consolidation we have some guidance.”
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) argued that there’s really no need for the policy because the Code of Virginia already gives school boards the authority to close and consolidate schools. He said the county has closed educational facilities and reassigned students to nearby schools throughout its history.
“We have surplus capacity at some schools, and we’re facing higher operational costs at the smaller schools,” he added. “We have a limited amount of resources to educate children, so if we have another school a couple miles down the road with space, I think we have to look at that. And we don’t need this policy to do it.”