Monday, April 14, 2014

Local school board loses budget battle, seems angry

To the editor:
The threat to close Loudoun's small elementary schools seems so poorly planned, and poorly advised, that it is difficult to attribute it to thorough analysis.

School Board Bylaw §2-32 defines the process for considering school closure/realignment. The four initial considerations are to promote the effective use of facilities, keep students in close proximity to their schools, encourage the link between schools and their community, and recognize the demographic characteristics of students and communities.

The current reaction -- I hesitate to call it a plan -- ignores most of these priorities. For example, in Aldie, the school is projected to be at or over capacity until 2020, and its per-student operating costs are $11,090 -- less than the LCPS average. That's effective usage, for a school that is embraced by its community and provides a good central location that's consistent with LCPS priorities.

Further, Aldie in particular serves a still-growing area, and projected attendance at the other nearby schools does not leave sufficient space to handle Aldie's current students along with planned growth. The temporary savings of a few staff member salaries (80% of the assumed "savings") will be completely overwhelmed by the requirement to plan, buy, build, and staff the proposed ES-28 any earlier than 2019 -- when the current schools in the zone will be over capacity by 2017. Every year after ES-28 is bonded is another $2.5M in debt payments we'll have to budget for.

Beyond that, it is essential to evaluate the transition of Middleburg to a charter school to determine if that is a viable way forward for the small schools. Mr. Hornberger said he believed that has been the right approach, “but we need to ask, can we afford to operate small schools at a much higher than average operating cost” while waiting for communities to develop charter proposals. Since the small schools are generally not operating at a much higher cost -- and in fact, two of the four are below average -- I'm sure he agrees with me that we must continue on this path.

Closing a school is not a single-year budget-saving measure; the money saved is very small, and the timing, just as we can begin to see how charter schools work, could not be worse. The school board has generally done a reasonable job of balancing competing priorities -- but this seems like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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