LTM Day 1: Douglass school boundaries

Leesburg School Boundaries Go to Trial

By Laura Peters

Loudoun Times-Mirror Staff Writer

Aug. 14, 2012

Less than two weeks before school starts, the decision for at least 35 students of which school they’ll attend lays in the hands of one judge.

Residents rallied Aug. 14 in Loudoun County Circuit Court for their children to be kept at Tolbert Elementary – a building they live directly across from – rather than being bused across town to the newly-build Frederick Douglass Elementary.

The school boundary issues have been brewing for nearly a year. Organized by resident Eric Dekenipp, the residents of cluster CL19 first outlined their concerns in a request to the Loudoun County School Board, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Potomac Station Home Owners Association and state Sen. Mark Herring (D-33rd) late last year.

The topic stems from the past School Board who came to a decision in December to adopt the Bergel Plan 2 Amended, which split the children living in zone CL19 between the new Frederick Douglass Elementary School and John W. Tolbert Jr. Elementary School.

Represented by John Whitbeck, Dekenipp appeared before Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne Aug. 14, the start of their two-day trial. Also appearing before Horne was Michael Petkovich representing Jeremy Acker, part of the CL5 (Beacon Hill) zone. Both Whitbeck and Petkovich are pursuing cases against Loudoun County Public School’s council Julie Judkins and Stephen DeVita.

According to Whitbeck and Petkovich, one of the major concerns in the case is the process the previous School Board went through to vote on the Leesburg school boundaries.

“There are so many petitioners who are alarmed with the process,” Petrovich said. “The process the School Board went through to reach the decision, the board ignored their bylaws. The group strong-armed other people who showed other processes that would work.”

Petrovich also pointed out that many School Board members refused to meet with fellow School Board members and residents over the boundary issues.

“The most critical fact in this case is silence,” Petrovich said. “It’s a big black hole. The board never did a comparative analysis.”

Petrovich says his Beacon Hill clients are concerned over special education classrooms and demographics within the school boundary changes.

One defining factor between the two plaintiffs is that Petrovich told Horne they’re not looking for a complete resolve, rather for it to be recognized that the School Board did not follow their bylaws or procedure. Whitbeck, rather, said the CL19 division wishes to keep the remaining 35 students who currently face a transfer to Frederick Douglass to remain at Tolbert, their previous school.

Tom Marshall, former Leesburg School Board member, took the stand as a witness to both cases. He told the judge the placement of special education classrooms, also called SPED, was not a big concern when it came to the planning of boundaries. Instead placement of SPED would be determined once boundaries had been set and the new school year started. This is necessary, he said, in order to receive accurate numbers of SPED students.

Marshall went on to say families in CL19 were affected because of how Battlefield Parkway split up the division of the boundary cluster. One concern of many parents and petitioners was the question of why their students couldn’t just walk to Tolbert. But, according to Judkins and Marshall, that school division needs to be deemed by LCPS and the Leesburg Police Department as a walking district – which it has not.

Beacon Hill’s argument lies within the demographics of the boundary changes. By moving them from the overcrowded Francis Hazel Reid Elementary to Catoctin Elementary means that more of those students will be in with English as a second language and free and reduced lunch students. According to Marshall, varying demographics is vital in a school.

“I think school community is more important than proximity,” Marshall said. He also pointed out that when it comes to cluster alignment, or which schools feed into other, the top priority is the transition between middle schools to high schools, not elementary schools.

The Loudoun County Schools sent out 143 surveys March 2 to certain families who have students enrolled in the Ball’s Bluff, Catoctin, Cool Spring, Frances Hazel Reid and John W. Tolbert Jr. elementary schools. These schools face having some of their students shifted around with new attendance zones, which will take effect this fall.

The surveys addressed families who have a student who will be entering the fifth grade in the fall and inquired if the family would prefer their rising fifth grader to stay at their elementary school in order to grandfather them in, much like they do with high school seniors.

Of the families whose children attend Ball’s Bluff and face redistricting to Frances Hazel Reid, three out of 21 surveyed said they’d want their rising fifth graders to be grandfathered. One family out of 22 said they would have their children stay at Catoctin rather than go to the new Frederick Douglass Elementary set to open in a few weeks. Ten out of 39 families who have children who currently attend Cool Spring, but are set to be moved to Frederick Douglass, said they would have their children stay at Cool Spring. Twenty-one out of 38 families with children attending Frances Hazel Reid said they would like to keep their children there rather than have them go to Catoctin.

The CL19 trial is set to continue at 9 a.m. Aug. 15 at the Loudoun County Courthouse.

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