Why smaller is better

Our view: Consolidating students in fewer buildings makes the best use of the city school system's limited resources

October 18, 2011

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso may have little choice but to close many of the school system's dilapidated, underutilized buildings, but to his credit he appears to be going about it in the right way. The changes won't go into effect for at least another year, and in the meantime Mr. Alonso is taking every opportunity to explain his decision to parents, students and neighborhood groups in order to enlist their support for creating better alternatives. Even so, this process is unlikely to be easy or painless.

As The Sun's Erica Green reported last week, the city's 200 school buildings were built to accommodate 190,000 students in an era when Baltimore's population was a third again as large as it is today. Since then, enrollment has dropped by more than half, to just over 85,000 students, leaving some buildings woefully underutilized while others are bursting at the seams. Clearly, the system could allocate limited resources more rationally by consolidating operations in fewer buildings and using the savings in administrative, staff and maintenance costs to improve the quality of instructional programs.

But what makes sense from an economic and administrative point of view won't necessarily translate into enthusiasm for change on the neighborhood level. Quite the contrary. Schools define the identity of local communities in ways large and small. They are sites for everything from after-school rec programs and PTA gatherings to athletic events and high school theatrical productions, and over the years they have acquired traditions, customs and memorable attachments that are hard to give up. It's easy for people to say some schools should close — just as long as it's not the one their child attends.

Deciding which schools to close is further complicated by the fact that school district lines originally were deliberately drawn to enforce a bewildering array of geographical, racial, ethnic and class boundaries. That crazy quilt of often overlapping, under-enrolled catchment areas, whose only purpose was to preserve social distance between groups makes no sense in today's school system.

Yet the arrangement lasted for decades, largely because of bureaucratic inertia and because few school superintendents were willing to risk the political fallout from going up against entrenched neighborhood opposition. As a result, the situation is far worse today than it might have been if officials had moved earlier to right-size school facilities to match the city's population decline.

Mr. Alonso has not released a list of the schools slated for closure, which is still being studied by an outside group hired to evaluate which ones are in such poor condition they should be shuttered. But no matter what buildings are eventually targeted, there'll be fierce pushback from the affected communities unless he can convince them that the alternative — an up-to-date physical plant with state-of-the-art facilities offering quality instruction in math, science and the arts — is better than what they presently have, even if the new school is more distant. Telling parents their kids will be in a school that is just as bad, only they'll have to walk farther to get there, just won't cut it.

He'll also have to assure parents that closing schools and consolidating teachers and staff in fewer buildings won't substantially increase class sizes. The good news is that there's lots of empty space in many schools that could easily accommodate twice their present enrollment without increasing class sizes. But again, Mr. Alonso will have to make the case to parents for why they are a better alternative than their old school.

Mr. Alonso is no doubt also looking at the long-term prospects for funding school building renovations and repairs, a staggering capital improvement project that the American Civil Liberties Union estimated last year could cost up to $2.8 billion. Most of that money will have come from the state or the federal government, and given Gov. Martin O'Malley's announcement this week that he will pursue an increase in state capital spending, more funds may soon be available. But the city will lack the credibility to seek such help unless it can show that it's already running the system as efficiently as possible. Right-sizing enrollments gives officials a proactive way to address those issues.

In the past four years, Baltimore has seen rapid progress in student achievement, and it has developed a model of what good schools should look like: modern facilities with resources for the arts, after-school programs and a range of community outreach activities. But with funding basically flat, that is becoming harder to achieve every year, especially for schools with small enrollments whose budgets are limited by the fair student funding formula.

Mr. Alonso has done an extraordinary job of accomplishing more with less. Closing schools will be painful, but smaller may actually be better.

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