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Officials Moving to Sell Some Schools

D.C. Council Pushes For Cost Savings

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page B01

The red-brick, four-story Terrell Junior High School in Northwest Washington was designed during the baby boom of the early 1950s for more than 500 students. But after years of declining enrollment, a trend seen throughout the D.C. school system, the 100,648-square-foot facility houses 254 children.

Terrell Principal Francis Nicol has found that there are advantages to having an underused building. When students are displaced from a classroom by the school's leaky roof or the faulty heating system, he has plenty of other spaces to put them in. And he has used an empty classroom in the basement for in-school suspensions.

Terrell Junior High School Principal Francis Nicol says financial concerns shouldn't outweigh educational ones in moving students around. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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But Nicol said he also recognizes that under-capacity schools like his are a financial drain on the school system, which has been forced by budget problems to lay off teachers and postpone capital improvements.

He might not have to worry about it much longer. Some city and school officials have floated the idea of demolishing Terrell and using the land for a library or recreation center. Terrell's seventh- and eighth-graders would be sent to the adjacent Walker-Jones Elementary School, and ninth-graders would go to a nearby high school.

For years, D.C. leaders have avoided raising the sensitive topic of closing or consolidating schools, remembering the protests from students, parents and teachers when the school board shuttered seven buildings in 1996, the most recent round of closings. But the idea has reemerged and gained momentum in recent weeks because of the school system's continuing financial woes and the chronic space needs of the city's fast-growing public charter schools.

City and school officials say that reallocating school space is no longer a question of if, but when.

"We have to show we are making better use of our space to make a credible request for more capital dollars," said school board member Victor A. Reinoso (District 2). "We need to begin the conversation on what the standards are [for consolidating and closing schools] -- the number of students, the percentage of utilization and a number of other factors."

At today's school board meeting, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is to offer a list of 18 regular public schools that could lease unused space to charter schools. School officials also are considering closings such as the one contemplated at Terrell.

Janey said he wants to move on the issue next year, after developing a "master education plan" that would outline the academic needs of the system, examine population shifts and guide such decisions as whether to introduce a K-8 grade configuration citywide.

But some D.C. Council members are demanding that Janey act on a plan this year, before they consider the school board's request for an additional $40 million in capital money from the city. They want the school system to pursue the idea of having schools share space not only with charter schools but with city facilities such as libraries, recreation centers and health clinics.

"I would like to see a plan prior to the council recess July 15. This will give council members time to take a look at it and be prepared to act on it in September," said council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6). She said she will propose that timetable when the council votes on the school system's capital budget May 10.

"We should sell off space, and the money will help us renovate and build new schools," she added.

Thus far, the school system has not determined how many schools could be consolidated or closed or estimated how much money could be saved.

The vast majority of schools in the 61,700-student system -- 113 of 145 -- lost enrollment last school year, according to the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit organization specializing in school construction issues.

At this point, the school system needs only 10 million of the 16 million square feet it has at all its schools, according to a new study prepared for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) by 21st Century and the Brookings Institution. The report also said about 37 schools are operating at 65 percent or less of their capacity.

Meanwhile, charter school enrollment has surged, jumping from 10,679 in 2001 to 15,500. And the city's real estate boom has made it difficult for charter schools to find affordable property to lease or buy. Spurred in part by demands from charter school officials and some D.C. Council members, the school board in February adopted a general policy of allowing charter schools to lease unused space in the traditional public schools.

"There's oceans of space," said Malcolm "Mike" Peabody, chairman of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter school advocacy group.

Moreover, the 21st Century-Brookings Institution report found that the charter schools, which are independently run and exempt from such requirements as hiring union workers, spend far less for school renovations than the regular system does -- $101 a square foot, compared with $352 a square foot for traditional schools.

When the school board closed the seven schools in 1996, it opted to keep the buildings in the system's inventory rather than turn them over to the city for sale as surplus property.

Despite pressure from council members, school officials said they remain reluctant to sell off buildings that will no longer house schools. "We do not wish to voluntarily give up our land," Janey said. "Some may not be used as a school but as a training center to benefit older students and adults."

In the case of Terrell Junior High, 21st Century officials say the building has 661 square feet per student, far more than the school system standard for junior highs of 170 square feet per student.

Nicol, the principal, said that although closing the school would have financial benefits, he fears that school officials may decide to put seventh- and eighth-graders with younger students without fully studying the educational ramifications.

"I'm fearful this imbalance may not be in the best interest of young, impressionable minds," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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