2020 In Review: Tumultuous School Year Capped with Superintendent’s Departure

For the School Board, 2020 opened with seven freshman members joined by two tenured vets looking to make their mark on Loudoun students’ educational experience. It was an experience no one will forget, albeit not one school leaders or students are likely to celebrate.

There was no honeymoon period for the new board, which immediately jumped into budget deliberations and then spent the rest of the year working to design and implement a program that didn’t require students or teachers to report to school each day, or at all.

Superintendent Eric Williams proposed a $1.4 billion spending plan that required an 11% increase in local tax funding. His budget envisioned the creation of 521.25 additional full-time equivalent positions—bringing the school division’s staffing to a total of 12,320—and $113.6 million in additional spending. Nearly half of the expense increase would be used to boost staff salaries. For teachers, salaries were expected to increase between $3,726 and $8,029, with an overall average increase of $5,445 for the division’s 6,592 teachers.

COVID-19 scaled back those plans. In May, county supervisors girding for the impacts of the pandemic, created a $100 reserve fund that included $60 million in funding earmarked for the schools. Raises were put on hold and staffing plans reduced.

The School Board was hit with another unexpected challenge in November when Williams announced he was leaving to take another superintendent job in Texas

Williams has served as Loudoun’s school superintendent since 2014, following the retirement of Edgar Hatrick who held the post for 22 years. In December, the School Board tapped Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Talent Development Scott A. Ziegler to serve as the interim superintendent following Williams’ Jan. 6 departure. The board also announced plans to conduct a national search to fill the post, but details have not been released. 

While dealing with those challenges, the School Board and the staff advanced other priorities. 

Efforts to fight racism continued to take front seat in the board’s work. In January, the board fulfilled campaign promises by making Equity Committee, comprised of two dozen community and educational leaders, a permanent body. 

In June, Williams proposed a plan to eliminate systemic racism throughout the school division. Among the 16 initiatives was to issue a formal apology for the county’s resistance to integration and changing Loudoun County High School’s Confederacy-inspired Raiders mascot.

Administrators also proposed changes aimed at increasing the diversity of students admitted to the STEM programs at the Academies of Loudoun after complaints that the low number of Black students selected for the courses represented a denial of equal opportunity prompted a Virginia Attorney General’s Office investigation. The admission changes, which include eliminating some assessment tests and distributed the limited number of seats on a geographical basis, were challenged in a federal lawsuit brought by parents of Asian students claiming they would be unfairly harmed by the action. At year’s end, the parties were awaiting a judge’s ruling on whether the school division’s request to dismiss the case would be approved.  

Among other notable policy changes during the year, the School Board voted to phase out the practice of ranking members of the graduating classes at each high school. Instead, staring with the Class of 2025, schools will use the Latin honors system, with graduates in the top 5% of their class earning a summa cum laude designation. Those in the top 6-10% will be magna cum laude and 11-20% cum laude. There won’t be valedictorians or salutatorians.

The board also added new holiday’s to next year’s school calendar. Schools will close on Sept. 16 for Yom Kippur, Nov. 2 for Election Day, Nov. 4 for Diwali, and May 3 for Eid-al-Fitr. Also, Columbus Day was changed to Indigenous Peoples Day.

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