Debate Over Race and Class Surfaces in School Boardroom

An emotional discussion over race and class broke out among members of the Loudoun County School Board Thursday.

They gathered in the boardroom for a public hearing on Leesburg school attendance changes. But it was the board members, not the public, who took more time at the mic debating what type of school assignments would most benefit students.

Attendance changes have to be made in Leesburg to reduce overcrowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. But on Thursday several board members, for the first time publicly, said major changes should be made to fix an unfair distribution of the town’s poorest students.

The majority of board members who served from 2006 to 2011 held the philosophy that schools’ student population should be as socioeconomically balanced as possible. So when they redrew attendance boundaries in 2006 and again in 2011, they assigned students in poorer neighborhoods—including a cluster of apartments on Plaza Street with more than 200 elementary students—to schools as far as 3.5 miles from their homes. In some cases, those students are bused past three elementary schools to get to their assigned school.

The dispute was sparked Thursday night after Sam Adamo, executive director of Legislative and Planning Services, presented his department’s proposed boundary map, which calls for few changes. It leaves students in apartments near Plaza Street in Leesburg divided into three different schools several miles away.

“This look like a gerrymandered map, and I’m not sure that we’re best serving our students with it,” Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said.

She was the first to challenge the previous board’s philosophy. She pointed out that schools with the largest populations of minority students in the county pull in impressive test scores. For example, enrollment at Guilford Elementary in Sterling is made up of 79 percent English Language Learners and 74 percent of students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. Yet they tallied passing rates between 88 and 95 on the most recent state standardized exams.

School Board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) speaks during Thursday's meeting about Leesburg attendance boundaries. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)
School Board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) speaks during Thursday’s meeting about Leesburg attendance boundaries. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

“I’m going to confront this notion head on. We’re not doing anyone any favors,” she said, adding that the school system should instead provide some Leesburg schools with more staffing support as it does for schools in Sterling.

Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who was on the board during the 2006 and 2011 boundary decisions, appeared to stand alone in his opinion to evenly disperse the town’s low-income students. He defended the board’s 2011 decision, saying that it cured a stigma that some of the town’s schools had because of their high enrollment of poor students.

“My belief is that our Leesburg schools should be equal. We don’t want any schools or any students to be stigmatized,” he said, adding that schools with a disproportionate number of low-income families have fewer parent volunteers and have a tougher time raising PTA funds.

Almost every other board member spoke against that model.

A visibly emotional Brenda Sheridan, board vice chairman representing the Sterling District, confronted Marshall.

“When we use words like ‘stigmatized’ and ‘those kids’ and ‘burden’ and ‘problem’ and ‘drain,’ it’s wrong. We are talking about children,” she said. Referring to Marshall’s comment about Leesburg schools that once had a stigma, she said, “You are talking about numbers that don’t even touch my district. It is insulting to my constituents and the families in my community. I’m asking everyone to please stop using that language.”

Also speaking to Marshall’s point, Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said, as a teacher at Cool Springs Elementary, she taught many of the students that he referred to. She said many of the families wanted to be more involved in their children’s school, but the distance made it difficult.

“I had at least two families who walked across town to come to parent conferences. I don’t know too many parents who would do that,” she said. “Imagine what can happen if you have students who are living and going to school in their neighborhood.”

Jean Matteson, one of eight parents who spoke during the public hearing, applauded the board for taking a stance on what she saw as unwarranted school assignments.

“Walk from Leesburg Fire Department up to Frances Hazel Reid on Rt. 15 with no sidewalks, and then talk to us about school community. These people can’t get to their school,” she said, adding, “Why are we so afraid to have a Title I school in Leesburg?”

Federally designated Title I schools have higher levels of poor families and receive additional federal dollars. Loudoun County has six Title I schools, all in Sterling.

A couple of parents who addressed the board favored the staff’s plan because it reassigns just 149 students. It moves a neighborhood on Clubhouse Drive (known as planning zone CL 28.3) from Evergreen Mill Elementary to Catoctin Elementary, and reassigns students in a planning zone north of town (CL 03) from Lucketts Elementary to Frances Hazel Reid Elementary. It would still leave Evergreen Mill’s enrollment at 120 percent of its building capacity.

View the proposal here.

In response to questions about his plan, Adamo told board members they may want to wait a few years before making huge attendance changes. Another elementary school may be needed within the next five to seven years as houses in Tuscarora Crossing come online.

He also brought up another boundary process that unearthed a similar debate, ahead of the opening of Dominion High School in Sterling.

“That was a fairly bitter and divisive attendance zone process, and race and class were at the core of those disagreements,” he said. “Race and class are very difficult issues and that will likely emerge again.”

School Board members will likely present plans of their own within the next week. The board will hold two more public hearings—March 3 and 14—ahead of adopting a map March 29. Public hearings begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be held at the Loudoun County Government Building, 11 Harrison St. in Leesburg.

Children arrive at Evergreen Mill Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, during the morning rush hour. (Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)
Children arrive at Evergreen Mill Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, during the morning rush hour. (Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now)

11 thoughts on “Debate Over Race and Class Surfaces in School Boardroom

  • 2016-02-26 at 2:13 pm

    Funny watching Tom Marshall deal with his past transgressions. And now defending his previous rationale of bussing students to schools miles away from their home.

  • 2016-02-26 at 6:59 pm

    The problem we have in this nation is we can’t even discuss sensitive topics because someone says a couple of words that seem off-putting and a bunch of folks come down on them like a ton of bricks. I did not support Mr. Marshall in his campaigns for school board, but just because he is raising concerns about “equity” or “balance” in school populations, does not mean he should be marginalized and quieted because he used a few words some felt were politically incorrect or “insensitive.”

  • 2016-02-27 at 3:51 pm

    Agree with Ken Reid. I understand that recent Supreme Court decisions have changed the rules somewhat but when I first came to Loudoun, I was surprised there was not busing. I came from a system that was 30% black 70% white. Busing started around 1983. Had there not have been busing, some schools would have been 100% white and others at least 80% black.

    I’m not sure where I stand on Leesburg’s busing but as the court said, separate is not equal. I find it very ironic that Jill Turgeon and Brenda Sheridan use test scores to try to demonstrate that Sterling schools are fine with 75% FRL populations when other schools have rates below 15-20%. In other scenarios, Turgeon, Sheridan and the rest of the board tell us to ignore those test scores.

    But look no further than the teacher of the year in FY15 from Guilford. She, herself, said she felt stigmatized for working in a school that often gets lower test scores than the average Loudoun school (never mind that Guilford’s growth scores are far above average despite LCPS’ refusal to release them). She said the press and community often don’t know what’s really going on in the school and how much success they are actually having. If the teachers feel that the community looks at them with a bias, can we honestly expect the students not to feel the same way? Using growth scores would solve a lot of this but not all. For all those claiming they want to stay in their neighborhood schools and provide more resources, are you fine with having high-FRL schools with 20 students/class and low-FRL schools with 27 students/class? If you are not, then you just might be a hypocrite.

    Let both sides make their case. Maybe take a real survey (via a professional organization) of the high-FRL school’s community. Review the turnover rate of the teachers between schools. Use growth scores. It’s better than just saying “I think…”.

    • 2016-03-01 at 5:00 pm

      Come on Ken. This isn’t about Marshall’s words, that’s semantics and it’s really a red herring to any dialogue. This is about his rational and justification for busing these students. It was bad during Marshall’s previous term and resulted in at least two LCPS lawsuits. It’s inherently wrong to basically segregate students solely based on their parents socio-economic standing. It’s compounded when a few schools have a greater than 11% of ELL/FRML student populations. The fact is Marshall’s previous votes basically stacked the deck at various Leesburg based Elementary Schools. Who now have a greater than 30% ELL/FRML students. It’s just wrong, both morally and ethically.

  • 2016-02-29 at 11:32 am

    Leesburg is already diverse. Our neighborhoods are diverse. We don’t need busing to integrate us. If the schools are rezoned based on geographic areas there won’t be a single school that is 100% anything.

  • 2016-03-03 at 10:43 pm

    Morse said it best tonight, “high achieving” or “good” schools equate to higher performing students and higher scores. Each student, no matter their parents’ income, should have the opportunity to flourish in these types of school environments. You need to balance out the schools or else Frederick Douglass will end up with 75% of the students in Leesburg from lower income families with less of a chance to have access to the features of a “good school” (i.e. more parent volunteers, family-raised funds and/or donations to supplement a pitiful school budget, etc.)

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