On any given weekend, western Loudoun welcomes people from all over coming to drink in the picturesque countryside, slower pace and a simpler way of life. Our western towns may not be Mayberry RFD, but they are close in some charming ways. In these towns, people see familiar faces at the grocery store, the post office, at church, and parents and grandparents watch their kids grow up together, sometimes in the same schools they attended.
Resistance to fast-paced development seems to be a unifying goal for many in both eastern and western Loudoun, but there is another ongoing battle. Closing the small schools has the potential of permanently dissolving the glue that binds communities.
If the decision in play was purely financial and the numbers supported closing small schools, the overwhelming desire of local residents to keep the schools open might not be enough. However, keeping these schools open will save Loudoun taxpayers potentially hundreds of millions in capital costs and interest over time while preserving a very important part of the community. The push to close small schools in western Loudoun is promoted by a few School Board Grinches under a false pretense that to do so will yield financial benefits.
To understand why a School Board member could support closing a fully staffed, completely operational school that has long since been bought and paid for, you need to focus on how schools are paid for. New schools are paid for with taxpayer dollars. The School Board seems to ignore the enormous cost of building new schools. School maintenance does come from school budgets, so therein is an incentive to ignore the bottom line that’s best for taxpayers. There is a push to avoid higher maintenance costs associated with older small schools by favoring new buildings. That would be analogous to throwing out a car you own free and clear that needs tires, if new cars were free. The cost of new school buildings along with interest is added to Loudoun County debt and paid for with taxpayer dollars.
The School Board, in the past, asserted western Loudoun schools are under-enrolled. Keep in mind that the planning goal is to avoid filling schools too full, and also remember the School Board holds the pen that draws the lines that ultimately set enrollments. Waterford, Emerick, Lincoln and Banneker students go to school in trailers. Emerick Elementary, Mountain View Elementary and Lovettsville Elementary are all at around 90 percent maximum enrollment, leaving a 10 percent buffer in a growing community.
Consolidation of enrollment at schools in rapidly growing areas of the county, such as the Dulles area, is different than other parts of the county. In western Loudoun, instead of serving a densely populated area, schools serve a large, sparsely populated, rural area comprised of rural towns and villages where students travel on gravel roads up to 45 minutes each way to get to school. Those rides to school are already too long; closing small schools would make them longer. If School Board members rode on a school bus traveling one hour each way over a winding gravel road, that might cause them to feel a bit more empathy for these kids.
Our small school buildings are in good shape overall. Hamilton Elementary, which is targeted for the first round of closures, ranks higher on the Facility Assessment Study than 13 other elementary buildings, including Aldie, Banneker, Lincoln, Waterford, Catoctin, Middleburg, Emerick, Sterling, Sully, Leesburg, Guilford, Lucketts, and Meadowland. Closing a high-performing building, or converting it for staff use, doesn’t make economic sense. Even though some of the schools rank low on the overall facility assessment quality, there are no critical systems problems. Delaying routine maintenance is not a good choice either. Last year, Hamilton Elementary had a 10-year-old leak in the roof fixed. The Loudoun School Board should be better at maintaining taxpayers' investments.
Schools, large or small, anchor and define Loudoun's towns and villages and act as a center for community life. The desire to preserve the rural character of western Loudoun is strong. Keeping small schools open would honor and respect the consensus around maintaining rural policy areas.
When the facts support shuttering western Loudoun small schools, then I’ll be open to hearing them, but right now to do so would be tearing the heart out of tight-knit communities, ignoring a part of our Loudoun heritage and handing all Loudoun taxpayers an inflated bill, with interest.
On Dec. 11 the School Board will be deciding on the first round of western Loudoun small school closures. To voice your opinion, you can speak at the meeting. Email the board at LCSB@LCPS.org, and call your at-large and district School Board members today.
Dave LaRock (R) represents western Loudoun County in the Virginia House of Delegates.