School Boundaries Stir Emotions

School Boundaries Stir Emotions

LEAP takes a look at Fairfax County's boundary process.

Many adjectives could be used to describe the upcoming debate about shifting school boundaries. None quite capture the emotion.

Loudoun has built 23 schools in the past five years, and another 16 are slated for construction in the next six years. Change is constant in the fastest growing county in the nation.

Every time the school district prepares to open a new set of doors to hundreds of students, the School Board has to set boundaries, determining which students will attend old schools and which will attend new ones. A child may grow up in the same house from kindergarten through 12th grade, but changing boundaries could force him to switch schools a number of times.

In 2002, the School Board was setting boundary lines for Dominion High School in Sterling. About 1,200 parents turned out for public hearings on setting boundaries for Dominion, Park View and Potomac high schools.

NOW, the switch is on for students who will be attending Newton-Lee and Legacy elementary schools and Briar Woods High School in Ashburn and Freedom High School in South Riding. Another elementary school is slated for Leesburg, but its location is uncertain.

To set the stage, the Loudoun Education Alliance of Parents (LEAP) turned to Fairfax County to see what lessons it learned in setting school boundaries. In the 1980s and 1990s, Fairfax experienced rapid growth similar to Loudoun's current situation.

John Bertocchi, coordinator of facilities planning services, said Fairfax made a significant change in the boundary process that quieted some of the disgruntlement. "Obviously, you are not going to make everybody happy," he added. "It's inevitable."

Fairfax's process is "a community driven exercise," he said.

Loudoun's process also is community driven, but the difference is that Fairfax started hiring paid facilitators six years ago. Fairfax could afford the move because it does not have as many schools opening as Loudoun does, he said. Each facilitator is paid about $175 per evening. If 200 people turn out for a "town meeting," 10 facilitators would be needed at a total cost of $1,750. If 1,000 people turn out, 50 facilitators would be needed at a cost of $8,750.

Bertocchi said Fairfax first holds a "town meeting," providing information about enrollment projections and relevant areas affected by the boundary process. The attendees are broken up into groups of 18 to 20 parents each to discuss which neighborhoods should go to the new school. A facilitator is used for each group, he said.

At a second meeting, the school district's staff presents three proposals based on the discussions. The parents break into groups again to identify pros and cons.

During a third meeting, the staff presents one proposal and the parents meet in their groups to make additional recommendations regarding that proposal. The staff makes adjustments and sends the recommendation to the School Board.

PUBLIC HEARINGS are held and then the School Board sets the boundaries.

Sam Adamo, the school system's director of planning and legislative services, said the school district holds "community input" meetings, providing information about enrollment projections and presenting three or four potential boundary plans. Parents have the opportunity to comment on the plans and to present their own.

The staff, using the parents' suggestions, then comes up with one proposal for the School Board. Public hearings are held.

"That's when it gets pretty highly charged and emotional. Some want it moved and others don't want it moved. It brings out a wide range of emotions," Adamo said.

After the public hearings, the School Board will vote to adopt a boundary plan. "It has been our experience the board does change the staff recommendation based on input they get from the community," he said. "The prospect of change and amount of movement, it can be disconcerting, particularly if you [the parents] have done this more than once."

Adamo said school officials cannot promise students won't have to move. "We're in a high growth area," he said. "Look at Brambleton, we're going to build four schools. É It's a community that is just beginning. They eventually will have 5,000 homes there."

DEVELOPERS HAVE proffered three elementary and one high school for that region. "We probably will need more than what is proffered to ensure the future demands," he said.

Sarah Entsminger, president of LEAP, said the purpose of inviting Bertocchi and Adamo was to dispel misinformation about the setting of boundaries. "People get all upset, not knowing the facts or what the process is," she said. "We invited Fairfax County to give a little perspective from the lessons learned. They've been through a period of tremendous growth themselves."

She said she hopes the debate will be less volatile, because people will understand the process. "What tends to make people more emotional is rumors that are not based in fact," she said.

School Board member Mark Nuzzaco (Catoctin) said he didn't realize he could make a difference before he became a School Board member. Four of his children had attended Loudoun County High School, but it appeared his fifth child would have to enroll at Stone Bridge High School due to a change in boundaries. "We were disappointed, because we had this long tradition of being at County," he said.

Two years later, another boundary change meant his son would have to move from Stone Bridge to the new Heritage High School. He petitioned the School Board to change its policy and allow rising juniors to remain at their old school if they wanted. Seniors already had gained that permission.

The School Board agreed, as long as the old school would not remain overcrowded if some of the juniors stayed behind. "For those students who chose to stay, it's a very important issue to them," Nuzzaco said. "We should do everything that we can to allow it."

As a board member, he said he likely would side with the juniors in upcoming boundary disputes.