School Board Debates Closing Lincoln, Hamilton Elementary Schools

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.”

7 thoughts on “School Board Debates Closing Lincoln, Hamilton Elementary Schools

  • 2017-04-06 at 10:21 pm

    Call it what it is—spite.

    “Fully fund our crazy budget request, or we hurt the kids.”

  • 2017-04-06 at 10:28 pm

    When someone claims that 5%+ raises to teachers, including the spouses of sitting school board members, who have the lowest attrition rate in the region is a “need”, clearly that person acts like a selfish teenager who cannot distinguish between needs and wants.

    Sheridan also says she wants “credit”. I think the school board should get “credit” for not being able to forecast their costs to within $30M!!! They had $13M leftover in FY16 and $6M leftover in unspent funds as well. Clearly the school board needs a basic finance class. Since FY14, there has been no less than $14.5M leftover in unspent funds but Sheridan can’t quite figure out that their budget this year is just as inflated. Let’s say it together …. complete and utter incompetence.

  • 2017-04-07 at 8:55 am

    Really? You want to close two schools because the extravagant budget you submitted wasn’t fully funded. You asked for $1.12B and got $5.5M less. Let me put that in terms more people can identify with. You get a job and in the salary negotiation phase, you ask for $56,000 and the employer counters with $55,725. Are not going to take the job? That is the exact same percentage difference; less than one half of one percent or 0.0049%. Or yet another way. You are making $112,000, you have two kids with another on the way, own a three bedroom house and you lose $550. Your decision is to close two of the bedrooms? That’s ridiculous.

  • 2017-04-07 at 9:37 am

    There is no cut to makeup for. They never had the money to begin with. Nothing is being cut.

    Mr. D is absolutely correct. There is never any talk about “cutting” administration. The hammer always falls directly on kids and parents.

    Rather than throwing kids and their tax paying parents out into the streets and disrupting teachers lives, why don’t we consider cutting out two or three floors at Education Court?

  • 2017-04-07 at 10:10 am

    It’s my understanding (and my info could be wrong) that the LCPS food service department has an employee who’s purpose is to post on social media for the department. Sometime 6 tweets each day or more come from the department. I don’t see a need for that, at least not at that level. Someone can do that as part of their job, but it shouldn’t be an employee of that department’s primary purpose. Let them coordinate with the LCPS Public Information Office. There’s one cut.

    No need for additional support staff in elementary school offices, either. Hire people who are good at their jobs and can handle the workload. Don’t continue to use internal transfers to fill positions with people who might not be the best qualified for the position.

  • 2017-04-07 at 4:36 pm

    Oh, here we go again – whining and suggesting radical, terror-striking things, like I’ve said before, to elicit a ‘give them the money!’ from parents who are panicking over the rash suggestions of the school board. These school board folks need to get a hold on themselves with this budget thing. I have to wonder if they mis-manage their own finances as badly as they do the school budget. What did they DO with the two years of overages virginia_sgp mentions? Is that money totally unaccounted for? And if so, why?

    I totally agree with virginia_sgp who said in this comment forum: “They had $13M leftover in FY16 and $6M leftover in unspent funds as well. Clearly the school board needs a basic finance class. Since FY14, there has been no less than $14.5M leftover in unspent funds but Sheridan can’t quite figure out that their budget this year is just as inflated. Let’s say it together …. complete and utter incompetence.”

  • 2017-04-08 at 11:23 am

    Always with some a dollar matters more than a child—whether it’s first rate education in Loudoun County or lead paint poisoning prevention at the EPA.

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