Leesburg Today: Day 3

Judge To Issue School Boundary Case Decision Monday

By Danielle Nadler

Aug. 16, 2012

Attorneys in the Leesburg school boundary case made their closing arguments Thursday, leaving the decision whether to throw out a school attendance map adopted by the Loudoun County School Board in December 2011 up to the Loudoun County Circuit Court. Judge Thomas D. Horne said he will issue a decision in the case by Monday—one week before the start of the school year.

In a split vote, the School Board adopted new attendance boundaries for the Leesburg area to prepare for the opening of the new Frederick Douglass Elementary School. The decision reassigned 1,058 students, including children living in the Potomac Station and Beacon Hill neighborhoods. Members of those two communities filed separate petitions for judicial review of the decision, and the arguments of the attorneys representing the two communities’ lead petitioners were heard together Tuesday through Thursday.

For those three days, color-coded charts and maps and overstuffed three-ring binders buried counsels’ desk and much of the courtroom floor, aiding the attorneys to translate a slew of public education jargon such as cluster alignment, feeder schools and spe-ed. A couple dozen parents, a few with their children in tow, ducked into the courtroom to watch portions of the hearing, speculating with one another during breaks where their children might attend school this year.

The scene illustrated what Eric Dekenipp, lead petitioner from the Potomac Station community, pointed out on the stand that the court’s decision will not just impact the petitioners, but could affect the entire town of Leesburg.

“It’s not just me—I am here on behalf of my community,” Dekenipp said.

The attendance map ultimately adopted eight months ago relocated roughly 35 students living in Potomac Station from the overcrowded John W. Tolbert Elementary School to Frederick Douglass Elementary, and Beacon Hill students 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 area schools.

Attorneys for each of the communities presented very different cases, but their arguments aligned on one point. Both Michael N. Petkovich, representing the six petitioners from Beacon Hill, and John C. Whitbeck Jr, representing Dekenipp, argued the School Board ignored its own bylaws for redrawing attendance boundaries. The board’s policy lists seven considerations: efficiency, proximity, community, demographics, accessibility, stability and cluster alignment, which refers to keeping students with their classmates from elementary through high school.

Whitbeck said there was no consideration to most of those items when the board adopted a map that moved a portion of the Potomac Station community, named CL-19 on the attendance boundary maps, from a school 0.2 miles away to a school three miles away.

“They completely ignored their bylaws,” Whitbeck said, later adding: “If the School Board’s decision is not found on fact, law or reason, then the court has the ability to overturn that decision.”

Returning the 35 students of CL-19 to Tolbert Elementary would remedy the board’s “wrong-doing,” he added.

Petkovich, on the other hand, urged the court to overturn the School Board’s entire decision because it arrived at it by “masquerading fiction as fact.” He is representing six Beacon Hill residents as lead petitioners, Jeremy Acker, Joyce Marino, Stephanie Holguin, Vashti Curtis, Lynnore Hamblen and Chris Ann Hunn.

Petkovich suggested an attendance map drafted and proposed by Beacon Hill residents was purposely set up to fail after a list of recommendations to meet the needs of special education students was put out by school system staff late in the attendance boundary process automatically eliminated their plan and five others.

During the boundary decision process, community members were invited to draft their own plans to be considered by the School Board. There were at least 13 plans submitted.

Questioning Loudoun County Public Schools Director of Special Education Mary Kearny on the stand, Petkovich directed Kearny to tell the court how the number of special education students and classrooms projected in December 2011 had changed for almost every one of the Leesburg elementary schools. Some schools added a classroom for autistic children, while others added classrooms for early childhood education, and still others eliminated special education classrooms as the final student count for the school year took shape, Keary told the court.

When asked whether similar changes could be made to the map proposed by Beacon Hill, just as the adopted map was, Kearny responded, “Depending on the capacity, yes sir.”

In closing arguments, Petkovich said, “That’s fine for them to consider the special education population, but it is not one of the priorities listed in 2-32 [of the policy]…We’ve proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they ignored 2-32.”

In response, Julia B. Judkins, representing the School Board, told Horne that his decision is not whether the attendance map the School Board adopted was the best plan, but whether it was legal for the board to implement it.

“Federal law requires that special education students learn in the least restrictive environment,” Judkins continued. “[The School Board] had the right to consider special education recommendations, and they did.”

She also argued that the School Board went above and beyond its legal obligations, holding four public hearings and inviting community members to draft their own proposed maps leading up to its decision. Legally, the board is only required to hold one public meeting 10 days before its decision.

“[The petitioners] had every opportunity to be heard,” she said, adding that the School Board landed on a compromise. “It’s part of the political process, you’re not going to make everyone happy.”

The hearing grew heated at several points, as Horne refereed objections, arguments and counter arguments of the three attorneys. At one point, Judkins questioned the legislative knowledge of Petkovich, who interjected to say her comments were offensive.

“Never interrupt counsel when she’s speaking,” sharply warned Horne, known for his mild nature. “You’re offending the court.”

In a county that regularly 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.

Neither Judkins nor the school system’s standing counsel, Stephen L. DeVita, would comment on whether the School Board will alter its process in future attendance boundary decisions. The board faces its next attendance boundary vote Dec. 11 for future Ashburn elementary schools Discovery Elementary School and Moorefield Station Elementary School. Beginning Oct. 3, the board is scheduled to hold six public hearings, as compared to the four hearings held leading up to the Leesburg boundary vote.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s