After being accused of drawing elementary school attendance zone lines based on students’ race and economic class, the Loudoun County School Board on Tuesday backed off on a proposal critics characterized as modern segregation.
The board ultimately adopted an attendance map for Leesburg area elementary schools that will reassign about 1,105 students next year.
The decision to approve so-called “Plan 8 Amended” was considered a compromise among board members who were at a standoff over what type of school assignments are best for students.
The proposal that sparked the loudest opposition, and the formation of activist group Educate Don’t Segregate, was Plan 12, which supporters called a needed paradigm shift for Leesburg elementary boundaries. It would have reversed a 1997 decision that sent about 700 low income and non-English-speaking students in apartments and town homes near Plaza Street to five different schools across town, some as far as 3.5 miles away. Educate Don’t Segregate advocated continuing to evenly distribute the academically at-risk students and moving just enough students to reduce overcrowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary, the issue that prompted the boundary changes.
The adopted plan leaves most of the Plaza Street students’ school assignments unchanged.
It returns some students to their neighborhood schools. But it still largely evenly distributes the town’s poorest students throughout several schools, leaving the highest concentration of students who qualify for the federal free and reduced meal program at 38 percent of school population, at Evergreen Mill Elementary. It reassigns the Lakes at Red Rock neighborhood from Frances Hazel Reid to Ball’s Bluff Elementary, and sends students in the Beacon Hill and Shenstone neighborhoods west of Leesburg from Catoctin Elementary to Kenneth Culbert Elementary in Hamilton. It also keeps every school at or below its building capacity and frees up space in some schools to accommodate future development in the town.
“I think this plan does provide the longest possible solution that is out there. It’s not perfect. Compromise is never perfect,” said Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), who drafted the map.
The board voted 7-2 to adopt Plan 8, with Debbie Rose (Algonkian) and Joy Maloney (Broad Run) opposed.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) acknowledged that the plan reassigns more students than he would like but called it “a fair compromise.”
Rose said she would not support a plan that sends one cluster of students to several different schools across town, while most students in the rest of the county get to go to a neighborhood school.
Maloney opposed the plan because it moves 67 percent of Evergreen Mill’s current student population.
Rose and several other board members took the opportunity Tuesday to address members of the activist group who characterized their support for returning students to schools near their homes as segregation. Rose said she spent much of her spring break last week “debunking rumors” spread by the Educate Don’t Segregate group.
“Let me assure you that at no point in this process was there ever an intention to put our Hispanic students in one school and white students in another,” she said. “It was just a flat out lie to say we wanted to do that.”
The plan that several board members initially supported, Plan 12, would have resulted in 59 percent of the student population at Leesburg Elementary and 56 percent at Frederick Douglass Elementary qualifying for the federal free and reduced meals program. The rate is currently 26 percent at both schools.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), also an advocate of Plan 12, said she ultimately supported the adopted Plan 8 because it was a compromise. “But it hurts me to the core that we are treating children differently based on where they live and their socio-economic background,” she said. “I don’t think a student needs to be sitting next to a child that makes more money than them to be successful.”
Anna Lopez, who lives in an apartment near Plaza Street, said after the vote, the flurry of the board’s debate left her unclear whether her daughter would be moved from Evergreen Mill Elementary. But either way, she hoped her family’s income level or race did not play a part in the decision.
“I don’t want her, because her parents are low-income or Spanish-speaking, to grow up thinking she’s on a lower level than her peers,” she said. “She’s smart. She’s a great student, and she does well at her school.”
Members of the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP held a rally an hour before the board’s vote to formally show their opposition to Plan 12. Chapter President Phillip Thompson said the group wanted the “status quo” in Leesburg schools. He stressed that he is not fundamentally opposed to a school made up of mostly minority students, but he has not heard any assurances from the board that it would provide those schools with more resources, such as bilingual teachers.
“I’m concerned if you do put these kids in these schools and not bring in additional resources then you’re going to fail,” Thompson said. “This board hasn’t shown that ability.”
The word lawsuit was uttered by a few people on both sides of the heated boundary debate during the past week, including by Thompson. He announced at the rally that if Plan 12 was adopted, the group would consider legal action.
On the other side of the debate, Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said Monday evening that if he lived on Plaza Street and his children were assigned to schools across town he would file a civil rights suit against the school division. “Why does every other kid get to go to a neighborhood school except these kids? We’re violating these kids in every sense of our policy,” he said. “Either way, we’re going to see a law suit at the end of the day.”
DeKenipp took the School Board to court in 2012 after his daughter was reassigned from her neighborhood school, John W. Tolbert Elementary, to Frederick Douglass Elementary three miles away. He lost the case, but the judge urged the School Board to make the process leading to boundary decisions more transparent.
Board members on both sides agreed that important issues surfaced during Leesburg’s contentious boundary process over the past several weeks. Rose said she wants the school system to use smart phone technology to translate meetings and memos home for families who speak languages other than English. Sheridan suggested that the board form an equity committee to continue the discussion about how to provide every student the best education, no matter their socioeconomic status.
“The best thing that has come out of what I’m calling the Plan 12 saga is this honest and difficult conversation that we have to have,” Sheridan said. “We need to develop policies that are threats of inequity and keep this conversation going.”