D.C. lawyers respond to school-closure lawsuit

April 25, 2013

Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 15 District schools will improve education across the city and does not discriminate against poor and minority students, D.C. officials said in response to a lawsuit filed by activists seeking to halt the closures.

In a brief filed Wednesday in federal court, attorneys for the city raised objections to the lawsuit, which contends that the school closures violate civil rights laws because of their disproportionate effect on poor, African American and disabled children.

The city’s attorneys disputed the idea that having children change schools is a violation of their rights. “Plaintiffs have no grounds to argue that [D.C. public schools] must continue to educate their children in precisely the exact same schools they currently attend,” their brief says.

Empower D.C. filed the school-closure suit in March in U.S. District Court on behalf of two advisory neighborhood commissioners and three parents of children who attend schools that are slated to close.

The suit argues that, in addition to violating local and federal civil rights laws, school officials failed to meet their legal obligation to consult with advisory neighborhood commissioners about the closures. Empower D.C. used the same tactic last year to temporarily block construction of a tour bus depot in the District’s Ivy City neighborhood.

The District’s attorneys argued that the plaintiffs, who are personally affiliated with only seven schools marked for closure, do not have legal standing to challenge all 15 closures.

Thirteen schools are scheduled to close in June and two more next year, displacing about 2,700 students. Black students account for 93 percent of those children, according to the suit. Black students make up 72 percent of the school system’s total enrollment.

Henderson initially proposed closing 20 schools, a number she reduced after community meetings and D.C. Council hearings. D.C. attorneys said that the process followed was evidence that decisions about the closures “were carried out in the glaring light of public scrutiny,” not “done in the dark,” as the suit alleges.

The city’s attorneys contend that Henderson’s closure plan was based on sound research, public comment and a rational desire to maximize scarce resources. Schools were targeted because of low enrollment, not because of the race or socioeconomic status of their students, they said.

The closures would save $8.5 million annually, which would be used to establish “additional elective and enrichment programs for all DCPS students,” the city’s brief says.

Halting the school closures at this point would create serious problems for the District, the city’s attorneys argue, interrupting planning of teacher and student reassignments, new bus routes and building maintenance. They also contend that the suit could set a dangerous precedent: “that a parent who is disappointed that his or her child’s school is closing” can successfully sue “if that school happens to have a higher proportion of African-American students than the District-wide average.”

The dispute about school closures “belongs in the realm of public discourse and local politics, not in federal court under vacuous and ‘kitchen sink’ civil rights allegations,” the city’s brief says.

The plaintiffs have until May 2 to file a response. A hearing is set for May 10.

“We are confident in our legal team,” said Daniel del Pielago, a community organizer with Empower D.C. “We’re going to have to do some extra work, but we feel confident that we can move forward with it.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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