School Board Debates Consolidating Elementary Schools

School Board Debates Consolidating Elementary Schools
  1. Hornberger’s Approach Voted Down at Budget Work Session.

As they work on reconciling the FY18 Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) budget, members of the school board still have a few difficult decisions ahead.

Board members are looking to cut $5.5 million from the proposed budget to meet what the County Board of Supervisors have agreed to give them. Among the suggestions for spending cuts April 6 was a motion by Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) to hold a public hearing on whether to close Lincoln Elementary School and Hamilton Elementary School, shifting students to Kenneth Culbert Elementary School.

Class sizes at these two schools are around 18 to 25 students, and Hornberger estimated there could be a $1.15 million annual savings by consolidating from three to one.

Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) was vocal in opposing that suggestion, and said the estimated cost savings did not take into account the extra costs Culbert would take on to serve the new student population. He also said there were schools nearby that were over capacity and LCPS may need the space at Lincoln and Hamilton in the future.

“To me, it makes no sense to be closing schools in a time of growth when we know that we have available capacity and we’re going to have to potentially build a new elementary school,” DeKenipp said.

Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) echoed this, saying it did not make sense to close schools in a county that continues to grow. He also said there was no reason to talk about closing schools this year.

Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) and Beth Huck (At-Large) said that if the board was seriously considering consolidating schools, the process for discussing this option should have been started at the beginning of the budget process, not at the end when the board is rushed for time. “It’s not fair to bring up closing schools every budget reconciliation process, and it makes students worry,” Huck said.

“I appreciate we have to look at all of our options for reconciliation, but this is the smallest or one of the smallest gaps we’ve seen in six years. We’ve had close to $20 million gaps and we have not had to close schools in order to make things work,” Turgeon said. “I don’t think it is a very responsible way to go about this process. If we’re going to be closing schools, consolidating schools, whatever you want to call it, that’s a long process and needs to be done thoughtfully.”

Joy Maloney (Broad Run) also voiced her opposition to closing the two small elementary schools, saying that there were students who thrived in the smaller class environment and had obtained special permission to attend the schools. Much like Middleburg Community Charter School drew students from all over the county because it served a need, Lincoln and Hamilton Elementary Schools also fill the need of student populations and therefore deserved to remain open, she said.

Vice Chairman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), Tom Marshall (Leesburg) and Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said they would support consolidating elementary schools because it was a question of efficiency.

Hornberger rebutted by saying it did not make sense to keep schools in western Loudoun open for potential overflow when student population growth is mostly in the east. The county should instead focus on building schools where the need is instead of planning to ship eastern Loudoun students to western Loudoun schools, he said.

“This is not a vendetta, this is simply looking at the data,” Hornberger said. “This vote is about keeping the conversation open so that we can actually have a discussion of the facts.”

The motion to hold a public hearing failed 4-5 with Rose, Sheridan, Hornberger and Marshall voting in favor.

As another cost-savings measure, Turgeon suggested scaling back full day kindergarten. By implementing a 75 percent full day kindergarten rate, as written in the Strategic Plan, instead of the proposed 87 percent, that would shave $2.5 million from the budget.

Turgeon also asked for more information on transportation needs. Sixteen bus replacements were not covered by the Board of Supervisors, along with textbook replacements, Sheridan said.

Morse asked Superintendent Eric Williams and LCPS staff to provide the board with a list of recommended cuts, possible but not recommended cuts and a list on items that should not be cut by the April 18 board meeting.

Sheridan ended the budget work session by expressing her frustration with the process. She said the board worked to make the process transparent in developing a needs-based budget. Sheridan also said the $5.5 million gap was unnecessary as Supervisors did not have to reduce the tax rate by two cents. Had they kept the tax rate even, they could have covered the entire school budget.

“What really frustrates me are the comments by the Board of Supervisors and even some of the public. The lack of trust that seems to come across in their comments is irritating. Comparing this board of elected officials to teenagers — last year it was about car keys and this year it was about allowance — that’s not what we do here,” Sheridan said.

Marshall and Maloney said they appreciated Sheridan’s comments. Marshall also reminded the public that the school board went through the entire budget process without any help of aides.

“We don’t just ask for everything that we’d like. We ask for what we’re certain we need and we do that as an elected body representing our individual districts and the county as a whole. And when we do that, we are transparent about it, we sit here and do it right in front of everybody and I think that we deserve more credit than we get,” Sheridan said.

The board will have another budget work session on April 20.