School closure strategy assailed

City wants to shut 10 facilities to save over $20 million

February 11, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN REPORTER

More than a dozen teachers and parents attacked a plan to close 10 Baltimore City schools with fiery sermons yesterday, telling school board members that they haven't heard enough justification for the proposal to eliminate six middle schools, two elementary schools, a special-education facility and an arts program.

At the first in a series of public hearings before the board makes its decision this month, the parents thundered about the potential effect of the closures - aimed at saving the financially strapped system more than $20 million in capital projects and deferred maintenance, as well as $2 million annually in operating expenses.

The 50 teachers and parents who attended the meeting at the Lake Clifton campus auditorium said that they were not convinced that the potential savings are worth the educational cost.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Sunday about a hearing on the proposed city school closures incorrectly described one of the recommendations being considered by the school board. Under the proposal, the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of the Visual Arts would be relocated to Harlem Park Middle School from Southwestern High School, which is closing this summer. The Augusta Fells Savage Institute and Baltimore Talent Development would both occupy the Harlem Park Middle School building, which no longer will be used as a middle school. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

"In this era of high-stakes testing, of No Child Left Behind, how can we balance the facilities costs on the backs of children who have no voice? " said Nikkia Rowe, a Canton Middle School teacher.

"It's troubling to me that that no data has been provided" to show that part of the plan - combining elementary and middle schools - will benefit students, Rowe said. Others echoed her concern.

Among the schools recommended for closure by 2009: Canton Middle, Hamilton Middle, Lombard Middle, Southeast Middle, Thurgood Marshall Middle, Pimlico Middle, Lafayette Elementary, Thomas G. Hayes Elementary, the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of the Visual Arts and Dr. Lillie M. Jackson Alternative Elementary.

Closing Hamilton Middle School would provide the largest single savings : $6 million for projected capital improvements and deferred maintenance, plus $291,000 in annual operational expenses, according to the 124-page "Facilities Utilization Study."

But the saving from at least one suggested closure, of Lafayette Middle School, would be offset by the costs of combining Lafayette Elementary School and Calverton Middle School, according to the report.

Some parents and teachers also noted that the figures don't reflect additional transportation expenses because more students would have to be bused. They also expressed concerns about the logistics of getting students to their new schools, protesting that some would have to cross major intersections or pass homeless shelters as people left in the morning.

"What we've said hasn't been included in the record at all," said Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp. and who offered one of the most emotional testimonies yesterday.

He warned that his neighborhood group was prepared to litigate and criticized officials for continuing to offer plans that would require students to be taught in temporary classrooms he described as "shacks." He also said that after 35 years of having some of its children bused out of the area, the neighborhood wants community schools to stay open.

The proposal to close about two-thirds of the city's middle schools came from a steering committee, along with eight area planning groups, after a series of community meetings. The board is to vote on the recommendations Feb. 27.

With space in city schools for 125,000 students but fewer than 85,000 enrolled, the board voted in fall 2005 to reduce the system's square footage by 15 percent over three years.

"We have some tough decisions to make. I'm not going to sugarcoat that," school board Chairman Brian D. Morris told those at yesterday's hearing.

But he said that state officials have told the city school system that it must close some underused buildings to qualify for state funding of new schools.

"The state has said that unless and until we become good stewards of what we have, we will not qualify for the funds going to other jurisdictions," Morris said.

Pointing to schools with empty classrooms - even vacant wings - Morris said the closings would free funds to improve other schools by putting doors on bathroom stalls, fixing windows and light fixtures, and repairing heating and cooling systems.

Officials also say that the closures will help reduce class sizes and add space for computer labs.

In response to criticism that the board wasn't listening to the community concerns, Morris said, "The voice of the public informs our decision-making - always has, always will."

A second public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Frederick Douglass High School. The final hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Polytechnic Institute.

If a hearing is canceled because of bad weather, a makeup session will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Poly.

Written public comments are due Feb. 19. A copy of the 124-page report and other information about the recommended closures are available at www.bcps.k12.md.us/depart ments/facilities/index.asp. For other information, call 410-361-9334.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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