Back to School Where?
Judge to Rule on Attendance Boundary Changes
By Danielle Nadler
Aug. 14, 2012
Which elementary school roughly three dozen Leesburg-area students will attend is up to a Loudoun County Circuit Court judge this week—just 12 days before the start of the school year.
A new attendance zone boundary map, adopted Dec. 13, 2011, by the School Board, makes room for the new Frederick Douglass Elementary School and reassigned more than 1,000 Leesburg-area students, including students in the Potomac Station and Beacon Hill neighborhoods. Members of those two communities filed separate petitions for judicial review of the new map, and the first day of arguments from each attorney were heard together by Judge Thomas D. Horne today.
Attorney Julia B. Judkins, representing the School Board, is expected to call witnesses to support the School Board’s case Wednesday.
In a county that constantly opens new schools, parents have been upset with attendance zone changes in the past, but this is the first time the School Board’s boundary changes have been appealed to the courtroom.
Leading up to the December decision, the School Board held four public hearings and three work sessions, with as many as 13 attendance maps—several of which were pitched by community members—on the table at once.
The attendance map ultimately adopted moved some Potomac Station students from the overcrowded John W. Tolbert Elementary School to the new school and Beacon Hill, an upscale estate subdivision west of Leesburg, from Frances Hazel Reid Elementary School to Catoctin Elementary School, a move the School Board said helped more evenly distribute the students considered low-income and English Language Learners among the Leesburg area schools.
Attorneys for each of the communities presented very different cases, except on one point. Both Michael N. Petkovich, representing the six petitioners from Beacon Hill, and John C. Whitbeck Jr, representing lead Potomac Station petitioner Eric Dekenipp, both argued the School Board ignored its own bylaws for redrawing attendance zones.
Petkovich went on to say how the School Board came to its adopted attendance map showed favoritism toward River Creek students, who will remain at Francis Hazel Reid Elementary. During the boundary decision process, community members were invited to draft their own plans to be considered by the School Board. Petkovich said the plan drafted by the parents of Beacon Hill best aligned with the School Board’s bylaws, yet was pushed aside.
He also pointed to an email from Tom Marshall, who represented the Leesburg District on the School Board at the time, that asked his fellow board members, “Why do we continue to give preferential treatment to River Creek?”
“It’s clear [the School Board] bent over backwards to make sure River Creek would stay at Francis Hazel Reid,” Petkovich said, later adding: “I ask that you overturn this decision.”
Parents in a section of Potomac Station, named CL-19 school attendance zone maps, does not want the board’s entire decision overturned, Whitbeck explained to Horne, but just wants the 35 students to be returned to Tolbert Elementary, which is within walking distance to their homes.
Keeping students at schools closest to their homes is one of the priorities of the School Board, Whitbeck said, “They completely ignored their bylaws.”
During opening arguments, Judkins, representing the School Board, argued that the board’s bylaws are not restrictive. She pointed to the “wide discretion” state law provides for elected bodies deciding matters such as attendance zones, and urged Horne to not decide whether the adopted plan is the best plan but whether the board reached beyond its legal capacity.
“It was a logical decision,” Judkins said. “The plan the board adopted moved the fewest number of students, balanced demographics, brought more special education students [back to Leesburg], relieved overcrowding…it’s not the perfect plan, but it is an improvement.”
Former School Board members Robert Ohneiser and Marshall were both called as witnesses by Whitbeck and Petkovich. Answering questions from Whitbeck, Ohneiser, who voted against the adopted map, told the court the School Board held balancing student demographics as a higher priority over reducing overcrowding, efficiency or keeping students at their neighborhood schools.
When asked by Whitbeck whether the board considered the impact of moving Potomac Station students from a school 0.2 miles away to a school three miles away, Ohneiser said he was the only one to bring it up.
“It just made no sense to me at all and, frankly, it was discarded,” he said. “…It was referred to as not meaningful.”
Marshall told the court one of the key criteria throughout the process was to relieve overcrowding in Leesburg elementary schools.
“Tolbert Elementary School was over 200 students over capacity—it had to be reduced,” he said.
Petkovich suggested the attendance map proposed by the Beacon Hill residents was purposely pushed aside, pointing to a list of recommendations to meet the needs of special education students put out by the school system staff late in the attendance zone process that automatically eliminated their plan and five other proposed plans. He asked Marshall how he responded when those recommendations were held up as new criteria.
“It made me feel like, well how can I win if they’re going to throw in another factor,” Marshall, who ultimately voted in favor of the adopted map, said.
Horne is expected to issue a decision before the first day of school Aug. 27.