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Andrew Sutphin is a third-grader at Aldie Elementary School in Blue Ridge, Virginia He thinks has a pretty good handle on what makes his school special.
“It’s nice and small, and the kids are all nice,” he said. “And every once in a while, it’s just fun. It’s my favorite school of all time.”
Aldie Elementary might be Andrew’s “favorite school of all time,” but until just a couple of days ago, it was also something else — it was a school in jeopardy.
In order to close a $38 million budget shortfall, the county school board was weighing whether to close Aldie, as well as Hamilton, Hillsboro and Lincoln elementary schools. Combined, these schools educate just under 500 students — far fewer than the average elementary school in Loudoun, which serves about 650.
School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger suggested the closures would save the district about $2 million.
“The reality is now we have several things happening. One, we have a budget issue we have to address. The second thing is, we have been watching as a school board for the last several years a continual decline in elementary school population in western Loudoun,” Hornberger said.
But on Tuesday, the school board voted six to three to keep the small schools open. At least for now. Aldie Elementary will soon begin the process of applying to become a public charter school. Next door to Aldie, the tiny Middleburg Elementary — population: 50 students — also recently became a charter school to save itself from the chopping block.
The question of whether or not to close these quaint community schools isn't a new issue for the county. The school board has grappled with it for years. And every time the proposal comes up, people raise the same objections — students won't get the same personalized education, the community will lose a critical institution and the rural foundation of the town will erode.
Speaking to the school board in 2009 when they were considering a similar plan, Rachel Hollinger, then 6 years old, also gave some other reasons not to close the elementary.
“All the great teachers there won’t have jobs. That would be sad,” she said. “There are other ways to find money you need.”
Five years ago, the Loudoun County Public School Board found a way to keep Aldie open. But Eric Hornberger says it’s getting harder and harder to justify accommodating rural places like Aldie, especially when enrollment is declining.
Growth is happening in the eastern part of the county in places like Sterling and Ashburn, the region Hornberger represents. That growth will likely march west, but school board members wonder whether it’s enough to warrant keeping small schools open.
“It’s not a matter of if these schools will close; it’s a matter of when,” Horberger said.
That might seem harsh, but county residents elected Hornberger and his fellow school board members to make tough decisions based on what’s best for the majority.
“There are trade-offs. No matter what the school board does in reconciling its budget, there are trade-offs,” he said. “And there will be people who are unhappy.”
Stacie Sutphin, Andrew’s mom and the president of the Aldie PTA, is one of many parents who rallied around the school, hanging banners around the town that read “Save Aldie” and crunching the numbers for alternative solutions. She disagreed with the claim that closing Aldie would save the district money.
“They're suggesting by closing the four schools, it will save them $2 million. In fact, it could end up costing them more,” Sutphin said. “We're educating below the county average, our building is paid for and our land is paid for. So that’s where our fight comes in.”
In the end, the school board agreed with her. After listening to the testimony of nearly 180 supporters of the four small schools, board members, including Jill Turgeon, who represents Aldie’s region, voted to spare them. School board chair Eric Hornberger voted against the schools.
For parents like Cheryl Hutchison, who has sent four children to Aldie Elementary, the fight was about more than just the school. It was about what the shuttering — should it come to pass — would do to Aldie. In a town where many people still live down long dirt lanes shrouded in trees, the community school is its beating heart. Close it and what becomes of the town, residents wonder.
“Once you start taking away stuff from the small villages, you start losing the villages. We become just a pass-through on a road,” Hutchison said. “The town could disappear. And I would hate to see that happen.”
Music: "Hall Talk" by Jesse Pruitt & T.J. Hill from General Education (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)