School Board Halts Small School Vote Until Western Loudoun Appointment

The Loudoun County School Board on Monday night paused a debate over whether to close two elementary schools until it can appoint a representative for the Catoctin District, in which the one of the schools is located.

Board members agreed to delay adoption of the 2019 Capital Improvement Program, which outlines the school system’s major building projects through 2025. They were scheduled to vote Nov. 27, but will instead push it off two weeks to Dec. 11, to give the newly appointed Catoctin District board member a chance to weigh in on one of the points of contention in the program—whether to close Lincoln and Hamilton elementary schools and reassign those students to Kenneth Culbert Elementary School.

School Board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) made the suggestion to consolidate the schools because it would save the county more money than maintaining two of the county’s oldest elementary school buildings. “Why are we planning to renovate, service and fix schools in an area of the county where capacity exists?” he asked.

Lincoln enrolls 90 students, with some class sizes with as few as nine students, and Hamilton enrolls 186 students. Reassigning the entire school communities of Lincoln and Hamilton to Culbert would still leave Culbert at 92 percent of its building capacity. The annual cost to operate Hamilton Elementary is $1.89 million, or $17,900 per student; the operating cost at Lincoln Elementary is $1.33 million, or $13,500 per student, according to a staff report. School system staff estimated that consolidating the three schools would save $1.8 million each year.

Hornberger also suggested, and some board members sound open to the idea, that the board consider retrofitting existing space at a school in Sterling for the Student Welcome and Adult Education Center rather than build a new $21.3 million building that the superintendent has recommended. Hornberger said putting the center in a wing of either Sully or Sterling elementary schools would be a better use of county resources and actually open the center where families who use its services have better access.

Hornberger said that the county has had an ongoing conversation for decades about how best to use its aging buildings. With some, they’ve kept them updated for their original use, and for others, they’ve been closed and turned into community centers. “This is not a new conversation. The question is, how can we best utilize space? You can’t gain information about what that impact might be without asking the question.”

Of any potential school closures or attendance shifts in the east, board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian), whose district includes schools in Sterling, said she’s open to that discussion. “As much as it’s not pleasant, I embrace at all times the ability to have a discussion about how to use our facilities efficiently, even if it means closing a school.”

Five parents from Hamilton and Lincoln attended the meeting to voice their opposition to any school closures.

Dorothy Landes-Butler, a parent of students at Hamilton Elementary, said the 96-year-old school is special to its surrounding community. People who are now parents and grandparents who attended the school come back to reinvest their time and money in it. “There’s a long history of roots in the community,” she said.

She was the first to point out that the Hamilton school, which sits in the Catoctin District, which does not currently have a representative on the board, other than the at-large board member, Beth Huck. “So bringing it up right now I think is inappropriate.”

During the evening’s work session, every board member agreed it was best to pause the debate until a representative could be appointed for the Catoctin District, which has been vacant for the past month since Eric DeKenipp resigned with 14 months left of his term. The board is scheduled to appoint a member Dec. 4. So far, six candidates have filed for the position. Learn more about how to apply for the vacant seat here.

“That will provide the successful candidate at least one week to get up to speed,” Morse said.

As is, the superintendent’s recommended CIP would request $833.95 million over the next six years to fund dozens of projects, including three elementary schools, a new middle school, a new high school, several classroom additions, and a student welcome and adult education center. A delay in the School Board adopting a final CIP will push the presentation to the county Board of Supervisors—who ultimately decides how much funding the school system receives—to later in December or January.

dnadler@loudounnow.com
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