School closing delay sought

Reversal on Southwestern follows concerns about gang conflict


In a reversal that could jeopardize millions of dollars in state funding, the Southwestern High School complex in Baltimore would not close this summer as scheduled under a proposal presented last night by the city school board chairman.

Chairman Brian D. Morris said he will ask the full school board to vote Tuesday night to postpone moving two of the four schools in the complex for a year. The proposal was made amid community concerns that a gang conflict would result from moving some of Southwestern's students to an elementary and middle school building.

Parents at Lafayette Elementary and Calverton Middle schools in West Baltimore have been in an uproar about a plan to move the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, one of four high schools in the Southwestern complex, under their roof. They say the move would cause a gang conflict and that children from kindergarten through 12th grade should not be in the same school.

At a meeting at Calverton last night, Morris said he wants the school system to wait another year to move Augusta Fells Savage and another of the four schools, Southwestern High No. 412. The other two schools, Renaissance Academy and Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, will move this summer as scheduled.

Though the Lafayette and Calverton community got what it wanted, Morris' announcement got a mixed greeting, with parents fearful that they could face the same problem in a year, after the gubernatorial election. Some said they thought Mayor Martin O'Malley, a candidate for governor, did not want to face their wrath in an election year.

"The fight's not over yet," said Carol Brockington, Lafayette Elementary's PTA president. "This is just to calm us down a little bit."

If the system does not fully close the Southwestern complex this summer, it could jeopardize the state's allocation of $39 million for school construction projects in Baltimore next school year, a top state official said last night.

"If they didn't move the two schools out, this is obviously something that gives us a great deal of concern," said David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program. He said the committee that oversees the state's school construction allocations would have to discuss the issue.

The city school system has space for 125,000 students and 85,000 enrolled, and its buildings have more than $1 billion in maintenance needs. The state has made it clear that future funding for school construction and renovations is contingent upon the system operating more efficiently, meaning it must close schools.

Michael Carter, chairman of the school system's Parent and Community Advisory Board, said the system must do what is right for the students regardless of the consequences.

"I don't think we should concern ourselves too much with state funding," said Carter, who headed the community committee that recommended which schools to close. "We should concern ourselves with the education of our children. Whether we downsize on schedule is not really important."

Morris said the school board will ask the state to give it credit for closing half of the Southwestern complex this summer. The rest of the complex would close in the summer of 2007, giving the system a year to find a place for Augusta Fells Savage. Southwestern No. 412, which was going to move into the Benjamin Franklin Junior High School building until closing next year, would instead close from its current location.

Southwestern 412 is predominantly an alternative school for overage students, and Morris said he is concerned about the disruption of moving vulnerable students to another building for a year.

The school board made a commitment last fall to close 15 percent of the system's operating space over three years. Dozens of community meetings were held over several months to decide which schools should close this year. The board voted this spring to close the Southwestern and Samuel L. Banks high school complexes, Elmer A. Henderson Elementary and Highlandtown Middle over the summer.

Several community activists, including the president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, expressed concerns that the system was closing schools, particularly Southwestern, too quickly for a smooth transition.

And last week, the man in charge of preparing school buildings for the transitions, Chief Operating Officer Eric T. Letsinger, was fired during an investigation of allegations that he tried to use system funds for a recreational fishing trip. Morris said Letsinger's departure had nothing to do with his proposal to delay the closing of Southwestern and was entirely a response to community concerns.

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