Officials insist no school closure list has been created

Reassurance comes amid rumors about Poly-Western merger


Baltimore school system officials are seeking to reassure the public that they have not yet targeted any individual schools for closure.

The city school board voted this month to reduce its operating space by 2.7 million square feet over the next three years because of declining enrollment levels and deteriorating building conditions.

Since then, rumors that particular schools are slated to close have been flying, most notably that Western High -- the nation's oldest public girls school -- is to merge with Polytechnic Institute. Western's alumnae association held an emergency meeting, and students have been circulating frantic e-mails urging people to save their school.

The rumor made national news this week: posted an article titled "Nation's Oldest All-Girls School on Closing List?"

But city school officials insist that there is no "list."

"There are no schools slated for closure at this point," said Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer. "We're trying to create this transparent, open process that will lead to a list of some schools that need to be phased out. Such a list just doesn't exist now. ... We've got a blank sheet of paper."

To generate a list of schools to recommend to the school board for closure, the school system has assembled eight committees of students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members throughout the city. Each committee will hold two public forums -- the first scheduled for next week -- focusing on the building needs of the communities being studied.

The committees will make recommendations on which schools should close or be renovated, and where new schools should be built. One citywide committee will compile the recommendations and submit them to the school board, which is scheduled to vote on the matter by April.

Before making recommendations, the committees will study building conditions, enrollment trends and, in some cases, academic performance.

Poly and Western, which are on adjoining North Baltimore campuses, are two of the highest-performing high schools in the city. But a consultant hired by the school system determined that both buildings are in "poor" condition, meaning they are in need of major renovation or replacement.

Poly's enrollment last school year -- the period the consultant and the committees are using for analysis -- was 1,169. Western's was 875, for a combined total of 2,044. The state-rated capacity for the two buildings is 3,841, though the consultant concluded that the schools can reasonably fit only 2,709 students.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said fears of a merger stem from the fact that both schools are operating below full capacity. Because of school system budget cuts in recent years, Clarke said, Poly and Western have had to cut teaching staffs, and therefore could not admit as many students.

"I think they have every reason to worry that they may be a target for this downsizing," said Clarke, whose two daughters graduated from Western. "There are rumors flying around, and there's no way to discount any of those rumors yet.

"What we need is for the school board to say, `Poly, Western, we prize you, we are leaving you alone,'" she said.

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