Another round of city school closings planned

Public hearings to be held in February after list is compiled

November 09, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

For the second year in a row, a process is under way in Baltimore to generate a list of schools to close and consolidate.

This time around, decisions are being made faster, with fewer opportunities for public input, which officials say they got lots of last year. There will be public hearings in February, after a list of proposed closures is complete but before the city school board votes on it.

Under pressure from the state to operate more efficiently, the school board voted in October 2005 to cut its building space by 15 percent, or 2.7 million square feet, over three years.

At the time, the school system had space for 125,000 students, but only 85,000 were enrolled.

Since then, the board has closed three school buildings: Elmer A. Henderson Elementary, Highlandtown Middle and the Dr. Samuel L. Banks high school complex, reducing square footage by about 3 percent.

The board was planning to close the Southwestern high school complex this past summer but, under community pressure, delayed shuttering the entire building -- which previously housed four high schools and now has two -- until next year.

System officials say that other than Southwestern, they don't know which schools will close in 2007.

The system formed eight community committees around the city last year to recommend which schools to close.

Those committees, whose members include teachers, parents and administrators, have now reconvened.

They are studying a long-range plan the school board adopted in the spring after a series of community forums and surveys.

The plan lists several schools that could close. It also recommends places to build new schools and which schools to reconfigure.

In meetings this month, the committees are deciding which parts of the plan should be implemented next, and where the plan needs revision. They will send their recommendations to a citywide committee next month.

That committee will then forward its recommendations to the school board, which is scheduled to vote on the matter Feb. 27.

Because the system has been through the process before, it is able to move quicker this year, said Thomas J. Stosur, the system's director of facility planning.

"Last year, we were starting from scratch," Stosur said. "We're better able to focus now on ... the next steps to implement this approved plan."

He said the system isn't convening forums of hundreds of people again because "we already have that input from last year."

Robert Pipik, the system's executive director of facilities, said the committees are working to make sure that no children are displaced twice by school closures.

For example, some of the children displaced by Highlandtown Middle closing now attend Canton Middle School.

In the long-range plan, Canton is also designated for closure. But Pipik said the system would not close Canton next year because that would mean that some children who attended Highlandtown for sixth grade and Canton for seventh grade would have to move again for eighth grade.

"It's a very painful process for the community," Pipik said.

Last year, the system hired a consultant for nearly $1 million to oversee the school closure planning process. This year, the system is heading the project itself.

Officials said they never intended to use the consultant, Ohio-based DeJong Inc., for more than a year.

The state has threatened to cut off Baltimore's funding for school construction and renovations if it does not take a series of steps that include closing schools.

City school system officials say the closures enable them to make better use of the resources they have.

They used more than $30 million in savings from the closures this summer to renovate schools receiving students displaced by the moves.

Because the school board did not decide until late March and early April which schools were closing, those upgrades were rushed. The board approved several no-bid contracts to get the renovations done in time for the first day of school in August.

Stosur said he expects the upgrades to start earlier next time.

Officials say they are banking on other lessons learned to make this year's process run smoother. Before holding the public hearings that are legally required to close a school, officials will hold briefings in affected communities.

This past spring, parents and staff at some of the closing schools were angry that no one had explained to them what was happening.

In a move approved by the school board last spring, Dr. Roland N. Patterson Academy and Harlem Park Middle School are on schedule to close in the summer of 2008.

Two charter schools in the Roland Patterson building will have to move.

Of the two schools remaining in the Southwestern complex, one -- Southwestern No. 412, an alternative school -- will shut down when the school building closes next summer.

The system is looking for a new location for the other school, Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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