Report says D.C. school closures unlikely to save much money in 2013-14

January 15, 2013

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s proposal to close 20 underenrolled schools appears unlikely to produce substantial savings next year, according to a report scheduled for release Tuesday by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

The report is based on an analysis by education finance lawyer and longtime D.C. schools budget watchdog Mary Levy, who estimates that the proposed closings would save about $10.4 million in staffing costs in the 2013-14 school year.

Those savings, according to Levy’s analysis, would be nearly erased by the cost of the closures themselves — an estimated $10.2 million to pay for inventory, relocation and storage.

The analysis does not attempt to forecast potential savings beyond 2013-14. Such savings would depend on unknown factors, including whether the school system maintains or leases vacant buildings or releases them from its inventory, the institute said.

The report urges school officials to clarify in concrete terms how the closings will strengthen schools that remain open.


Kaya Henderson (The Washington Post)

“If there are to be savings, how are you going to reinvest them?” said Soumya Bhat of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “And how does this link to your overall effort to improve quality across the system?”

Henderson has argued that closing half-empty buildings will allow her to operate the D.C. Public Schools more efficiently, redirecting resources from maintenance and administration to classroom teaching. But she has declined to offer a dollar figure for the savings the school system expects.

The chancellor has said she expects to release her final list of school closures this week.

“As you’ll see when we release our final consolidation plan and through the upcoming school budgeting process, DCPS will reinvest funds from consolidated schools to improve programming and equity across the district,” schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said. “The goal is to use funds and resources in a more efficient and strategic way in our schools.”

Elementary schools should enroll at least 350 children to operate efficiently, according to the chancellor, while middle schools need at least 450 and high schools at least 600.

Levy has in recent years analyzed D.C. school budgets for the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole and the city’s chief financial officer. Her analysis suggests that the school system spends only slightly more operating small schools — 4 percent at the elementary level — than their larger counterparts.

Her analysis, which is based on the school system’s current staffing model and projected enrollments, focuses solely on general education services funded with local dollars. It excludes federal spending for special education, poor children and speakers of English as a second language.

The analysis accounts for 15 of the 20 schools proposed for closure. It does not include schools for specialized populations, including three for students with disabilities (Sharpe Health, Mamie D. Lee and Prospect Learning Center), one for students on long-term suspension (CHOICE) and one alternative high school (Spingarn STAY).

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