Officials Moving to Sell Some Schools

Terrell Junior High School Principal Francis Nicol says financial concerns shouldn't outweigh educational ones in moving students around.
Terrell Junior High School Principal Francis Nicol says financial concerns shouldn't outweigh educational ones in moving students around. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005

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.

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.

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