Low enrollment might force city to close some schools

February 17, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Shrinking enrollment in Baltimore's public schools could force the city to close at least eight of them in the next few years, city education chief Robert Booker said yesterday.

Booker, appearing before a legislative committee in Annapolis, said the school district has hired consultants to help decide which of its 184 schools are least used and should be shut down. He plans to recommend specific closings to the school board by July.

"We're assessing each school and looking at a rezoning plan," Booker told the House Appropriations Committee. "We expect that the data will indicate the need to close at least eight schools."

Based on preliminary statistics on the 103,000-student district, Booker said he expects to close eight elementary and middle schools. High schools are more likely to be spared, he said, because there are fewer of them and most serve one to two thousand students.

Closing schools, especially neighborhood elementaries, is almost always unpopular. Booker said he has not identified the schools or areas of the city that might be affected but that he expects any plan to touch off parent and community protests.

"We have a long way to go," he said before the legislative hearing. With a sigh, he added, "It's not a popular thing to do."

Many of the schools were built for twice as many students as they have now. The decades-long decline in enrollment and performance at city schools has been the consequence and cause of the continued middle-class migration to the suburbs.

Baltimore, which made up 40 percent of Maryland's population in 1950, now accounts for 13 percent. Since its post-World War II population peak of nearly 1 million, the city's population has plunged to fewer than 650,000 as more and more families have left for safer neighborhoods and better schools in outlying counties.

School enrollment has mirrored the decline, though it has been less pronounced because many larger families continue to send their children to public schools.

Still, since the exodus began in earnest in the early 1960s, the school district's enrollment has dropped by more than 60,000. About 1,000 fewer children attended city schools each year during the 1990s, as enrollment fell to 103,000. According to recent projections, the losses will continue in the next decade, resulting in an enrollment decline to 80,000.

Despite the losses, school officials argue that most of the buildings are well-occupied. More space is needed, they say, because of smaller classes and the number of special education programs.

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