Board votes to close schools

Panels to suggest which buildings should be shut

October 04, 2005|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Faced with declining enrollment, deteriorating buildings and state demands to operate more efficiently, the Baltimore school board voted last night to cut its operating space by 2.7 million square feet -- a move that will result in school closings over the next three years.

Eight community groups created by the school system have been charged with identifying schools that will be closed. The board expects to vote on the groups' proposals by April.

School system officials said the school closings would be beneficial because the state has been reluctant to fund school renovations and construction while the system is operating so inefficiently.

"This isn't a doom and gloom story," said Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer. "This is about getting better facilities for our kids."

Currently, the school system operates 171 schools with a total of 18 million square feet of space, enough for 126,000 students. But this year's enrollment is just 86,300 and it is expected to drop more in the future.

The system has about 5.7 million excess square feet -- more than the entire Frederick County school system, according to state figures. Even with the 2.7-million-square-foot cut approved by the board, the system will still have 3 million square feet of excess space.

State officials have asked the school system to reduce its capacity by 4 percent a year for three years. Last night's decision will reduce capacity more than that, but officials said they'll still have enough space for more than 100,000 students.

The board also voted to ask the state for $100 million for school maintenance in the 2006-2007 academic year -- nearly triple what it has asked for in previous years -- but only a fraction of the estimated $1 billion needed for repairs.

School system Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said no employees will lose their jobs as a result of the school closings. She said the operations of schools left open will improve because custodians, school police, painters and other workers won't be spread as thin. In addition, she said, principals -- who currently spend as much as 40 percent of their time on building operations -- will have more time to focus on instruction.

"It's an opportunity to focus our resources on fewer square feet so we're able to better serve the areas that remain," she said. She added that the school system is "trying to make this as transparent a process as possible."

Michael Carter, president of the school system's Parent and Community Advisory Board, said it is critical that parents turn out at coming community forums to voice their opinions about what they want their children's schools to look like. He said the plan the school system is devising will guide "how facilities will look for the next 50 years. ... It's important to get parents out so we'll have a product that's representative."

The system has spent $1 million to hire an Ohio consulting firm, DeJong & Associates, to lead the community through the planning process. The firm will help community committees to determine the space needs of their neighborhood schools and how schools should be configured to meet modern academic needs. For example, the school system is asking the committees and the public whether they want to convert conventional middle schools to K-8 schools.

Letsinger said the school system is asking the community "to dream big with us. ... When we have a plan of what we want to look like, then it's the state's turn to step up" with funding. But at a community committee meeting last week at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School on the building needs of eastern city schools, participants said they fear the school system could raise community hopes unrealistically.

Even state officials have acknowledged that the school system likely needs some new school buildings. Some buildings are in such bad shape that it would cost less to build new ones, and others -- such as sprawling high schools with multiple additions -- do not meet modern academic needs.

Letsinger said the school system has not usually asked for as much money as it needs to maintain its buildings. Last year, the city schools asked for $33.1million, while Montgomery County asked for $126 million, Prince George's County $98 million and Baltimore County$70 million. All four systems received between $21 million and $30 million.

Bebe Verdery, education reform director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the city schools "have the highest need in the state, so now their request is beginning to get close to asking for what they need."

The school system is asking for money for 35 new boilers, 28 new chillers for air conditioners, 24 window and door projects and 17 new roofs, affecting 54 schools throughout the system.

Letsinger said the requests are only for schools that are unlikely to close, such as Baltimore City College and Yorkwood Elementary, where there are enough students enrolled and the buildings are reparable.

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