Board Votes to Close Five District Schools

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

The D.C. Board of Education last night approved the first major plan in nine years to significantly shrink its excess space, agreeing to close five schools and to make parts or all of eight other school buildings available for leasing to charter schools.

Board members continued to face criticism of the plan, as they have throughout the six-month school-closure process.

"This is closure for closure's sake," schools activist Marc Borbely said before the meeting. Yesterday, Borbely sent board members an e-mail urging them to reconsider closing R.H. Terrell Junior High School in Northwest, claiming that the panel had failed to hold a required public hearing on the proposal. "There is no sense this is what's best for kids."

The board is on a tight schedule to close the first round of schools and settle on a list for a second round of closures before five new members join the panel in January 2007, said a schools source who requested anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive. Moreover, the source said, board members urged Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to postpone the release of the second list until the fall, partly to minimize the issue during the mayoral and council races, the source said.

"This is hard to do during an election year," the source said. "You could have a shift on the board, and the closings might not go through."

In approving the plan, the school board addressed long-standing criticism from members of Congress and the D.C. Council that, in the wake of declining enrollment, the system was wasting money by operating far too many buildings. Last night's vote will trim nearly 1 million square feet from the school system's inventory, which consists of 16 million square feet of space. In two years, the school board will cut another 2 million square feet by closing or consolidating about 20 more schools.

Under the plan, approved by a 6 to 1 vote last night, Shadd Elementary in Southeast, Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center in Southeast, Van Ness Elementary in Southeast and R.H. Terrell Junior High will close in August. The system will temporarily close McGogney Elementary in Southeast, shifting its students to nearby M.C. Terrell Elementary until yet-to-be-scheduled renovations at McGogney are complete. After that, M.C. Terrell will close.

Last week, Janey pulled Merritt Educational Center in Northeast off the closure list, saying he wanted to relocate middle school students from Fletcher-Johnson there. Janey opted to close R.H. Terrell and keep open the nearby Walker-Jones Elementary -- the opposite of an earlier proposal -- because the Walker-Jones building is in better shape, he said. Seventh- and eighth-graders from R.H. Terrell will be relocated to the third floor of Walker-Jones; ninth-graders will go to Dunbar Senior High in Northwest or to other high schools.

Michelle J. Walker, the school system's chief of strategic planning and policy, disputed Borbely's allegation that the required public hearing on R.H. Terrell's closure was not held. The issue was covered at a public hearing this month on the proposed Walker closure, she said.

Janey reversed his earlier proposal to close M.C. Terrell, shifting those students to McGogney. The earlier proposal, he said, would have relocated students from Terrell and McGogney to a third elementary school during the renovation of McGogney, requiring them to move too many times.

The last-minute decision to temporarily close McGogney generated the most controversy.

Cyndrell Parker, a special education teacher at McGogney, complained before the meeting that M.C. Terrell's "open-space" design without classroom walls would cause "too many distractions" for her students. Thomas M. Brady, chief business operating officer, told board members that facilities staff will install partitions between classrooms.

The plan also calls for the consolidation of underenrolled Adams Elementary in Northwest with Oyster Elementary nearby. The system also will rent out excess space in Adams; Rudolph Elementary in Northwest; Bunker Hill Elementary in Northeast; Eliot Junior High in Northeast; Sharpe Health Annex, a special education facility in Northwest; and the buildings that formerly housed Evans, Harrison and Old Miner schools, which no longer are in operation.

Board member William Lockridge cast the lone vote against the plan. Members Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Carrie L. Thornhill were absent.

In another matter, the school board approved a contract that will provide teachers a 10 percent raise over two years. The contract also will establish two pilot programs, one paying bonuses for teachers at 10 schools who succeed in boosting student achievement, the other granting some autonomy to 10 more schools seeking to introduce rigorous and innovative programs.

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