The cost of closing a school

Baltimore County: Paper savings of consolidating schools may undermine east-side revitalization.

April 27, 1999

CLOSING SCHOOLS is about to become an issue in Baltimore County. Declining enrollment in southeastern county elementary schools in Dundalk and Sparrows Point is causing administrators to update a school closing policy that's collected dust since the late 1970s.

Now would be an appropriate time to ensure that operating efficiencies aren't the only criteria driving these decisions.

Elementary schools such as Battle Grove, Bear Creek and Charlesmont are, indeed, operating below their designed capacity, but they are far from empty. Bear Creek, designed for 756 students, enrolls 518 -- a number some would consider more optimal for an elementary school. Charlesmont has only 43 students fewer than its intended capacity.

Only Battle Grove operates substantially below capacity.

Redistributing these students might result in one less school. Will crowding 700 kids in an elementary school produce better academic performance? Probably not. Young students perform better in more intimate surroundings where they are not lost in the crowd.

The other issue is that these older neighborhoods are undergoing a demographic transformation. Empty nesters may be replaced by younger families in a few years. Does it make sense to close a school in two years that may have to reopen five years later, especially if the county's intent to revitalize the east side succeeds?

Saving the school system has to be weighed against the effect on children and neighborhoods that already face stiff challenges.

Elementary schools, even more so than middle or high schools, are the heart of communities.

A short-term savings that could make these communities less stable and desirable, thereby undercutting county government rebuilding efforts, would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

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