Schools' shuffle

February 19, 2006

The initial recommendations offered by a citywide committee to close six Baltimore schools in the next two years might be painful for several communities, but some closures are inevitable as the school system reduces space and tries to deal with outmoded and crumbling facilities.

Among difficult choices, these recommendations are probably the best that can be hoped for.

With a steadily declining student population, the city school system plans to reduce operating space by 15 percent over three years in order to keep receiving school construction funds from the state. The citywide steering committee distilled results from nearly 60 community meetings, questionnaires and analyses of building capacity and enrollment and offered its conclusions to the board last week.

Most controversial are plans to close five schools this year and a sixth in 2008, sending an estimated 5,300 students to other schools, mostly in the same or adjacent neighborhoods. But some of the transfers would mix high school and middle school students - at least temporarily - a result that has rightly raised concern among parents and students. Although school officials insist that older and younger students would have separate learning environments, they must ensure that younger students are kept safe, especially before, between and after classes.

At the same time, school officials are trying to rationalize facility needs over the next decade. Given that Baltimore school buildings are the oldest and among the most neglected in the state, school administrators are also floating an ambitious $2.7 billion plan that would close 16 schools, build 26 new schools and renovate 112 schools. In all the plans, officials are rightly trying to equip schools with necessities that are often missing from current buildings, such as computer and science labs, art and music rooms and gymnasiums. They also need to make sure that space is reconfigured to further the goals of smaller class sizes, smaller high schools and smaller K-8 schools.

While the long-term blueprint is a work in progress, the proposal to close half a dozen schools in the short term is reasonable and will be decided quickly by the school board. But parents, students, teachers, neighborhood residents and others should take advantage of additional public meetings to weigh in with any lingering concerns - and the school board should listen carefully before casting its final vote March 28.

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