Time to face need for city school closings

Too many buildings: Baltimore's shrinking enrollment means fewer schools are necessary.

February 20, 2000

THERE WAS no surprise in Robert Booker's assertion last week that city schools need to shutter some buildings. The outgoing chief just did the math: 183 schools and 103,000 kids soon to be 80,000. There are just too many schools.

But Dr. Booker didn't illustrate in his address to the General Assembly why reducing the number of schools is so important in Baltimore. To get a sense of that, you need to take a tour of some of the city's crumbling structures.

Go to William Paca Elementary in East Baltimore, a 26-year-old building with a heating system so erratic that it overheated three computers in 1997.

Peek into Steuart Hill Elementary in West Baltimore, where a 1997 inspection found cracked asbestos floor tiles and damaged or disconnected sinks and urinals. It was constructed in 1969.

Or wander over to William Pinderhughes Elementary, built in 1973 just off Pennsylvania Ave. A 1997 inspection revealed veneer peeling from the building's exterior, a roof with a remarkable series of bubbles and soft spots and sewer lines that hadn't been cleaned to prevent back-ups into the kitchen and lavatories.

Get the picture?

Although many city schools are in bad shape because they're 40, 50 or even 60 years old, others -- like the three cited above aren't old enough to justify their sorry condition. They simply haven't been maintained. And that neglect is directly related to the fact that there are too many schools.

Thirty years of declining enrollment has meant less and less money for things other than teachers, books and other direct educational costs. The maintenance budget has been cut and cut again, even as the system maintained about the same number of schools it had when there were nearly 200,000 students.

The result: Every building gets by with less. Skip a roof replacement here, a boiler cleaning there and -- over time -- things deteriorate to the point where schools that ought to be in good shape look like they should be torn down.

At Pinderhughes, the cost of the necessary repairs is nearly half the building's value. You'd never invest that kind of money in a house in similar disrepair; then again, most folks wouldn't let things get so bad in the first place.

Baltimore schools have got to fix this problem now. A targeted reduction in the number of schools will free up more money to maintain remaining buildings. And it only makes sense that the size of the district's infrastructure matches the size of its population, so that life is more bearable for the students who inhabit city schools.

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