An effort by School Board members to rewrite a policy for closing school buildings is getting push back, from both community members and from within the board.
Almost every spring, as school leaders look for savings in their operating budget, closing one or more of the schools with fewer than 200 students is floated as a possibility.
Ahead of adopting a reconciled budget in April 2017, Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) made a motion to hold a public hearing to consider closing Lincoln and Hamilton elementary schools. It narrowly failed, with Hornberger, Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), Debbie Rose (Algonkian), and Tom Marshall (Leesburg) in support. But 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 the process.
A month later, Sheridan took up the matter in the Legislative and Policy Committee, which she chairs.
The policy under consideration mirrors policy language from Virginia School Boards Association, and lists several reasons to retire or repurpose a school, school facility or other facility. Those include efficiency of the facility, educational equity and “any other reason that would justify retiring or repurposing a facility.” It would replace a current policy that directs the superintendent to include any recommendations for school closures in his Capital Improvement Program—which serves as a six-year planning document for capital costs—two years in advance “to ensure community participation in the final decision.”
After the Legislative and Policy Committee worked on the policy for a few months, Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) brought it over to the Finance and Facilities Committee, which he chairs, in in October. It was discussed in five committee meetings, according to meeting minutes.
DeKenipp, who’s a vocal proponent of keeping the small schools open, was accused of stalling adopting of the revised policy after he recommended during Tuesday’s Finance and Facilities Committee meeting that the vote again be delayed. He brought up a joint resolution that has been introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates by Del. David LaRock (R-33) that would direct the House’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study the true cost of education in the commonwealth.
“I recommend that we table this policy until that study can be complete,” he said.
School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) and Sheridan told DeKenipp that the majority of the committee had voted Nov. 14 to put the item on the agenda as an action item for a vote, and that his efforts to stall the process violated parliamentary rules. DeKenipp was absent for that Nov. 14 meeting.
“I don’t feel that this should move forward when I’m absent, given that I’m a primary stakeholder,” DeKenipp responded, referring to the fact that he’s the only committee member whose district includes small schools.
“I understand, however, when you don’t come to a meeting for whatever reason, you’re giving up a right to vote,” Sheridan said, noting that he could have phoned in to take part in the vote.
DeKenipp protested, saying that the policy is being pushed through committee too quickly with very little input from the public or board members whose districts include the small schools.
“We have worked on this for a year and a half,” Morse responded. “The whole point is to bring it to the full School Board so board members who have representatives in this area can weigh in.”
The committee members agreed to call a special meeting for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, dedicated to having a discussion and vote on the matter, ahead of it going to the full board. Any vote at the committee level is merely a recommendation to the full board.
DeKenipp told his board colleagues that he’ll likely have another 20 to 30 questions for the staff at that meeting.
Six people addressed the committee to voice their opposition to the proposed policy and, more specifically, to closing any school buildings.
Parents said they are concerned that the policy, if adopted as is, would not specify a timeline or process to inform the public and take input when a school is being considered for closure.
“Given the flexible nature of this provision, while it states there will be public input, there are no parameters set to legitimize that opportunity,” said Christa Haggard, president of Hamilton Elementary’s PTA.
Cara Orenzuk said the policy provides a “magic wand” to the majority of the School Board to do what it sees fit with any facility within the school system. “This is about overreaching—giving a magic wand-, fairy dust-kind-of-power—to people who don’t represent the western Loudoun constituents,” she said. Orenzuk and others told the committee that the decision to shutter a school should lie with the superintendent, not five out of nine School Board members, who are elected officials.
Morse later replied that every major decision in Loudoun County Public Schools lies with the board, including a $1 billion annual budget. “It’s ludicrous to say, ‘how can we trust them with this?’ Well, you elected us to do it,” he said. “It’s our job to do it.”