By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are considering closing 19 schools next summer and five others by summer 2010, according to a confidential document prepared by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education.
But to keep those schools operating through June, Fenty, in a separate letter to the D.C. Council, has requested $31.6 million. That money also would cover teaching positions slated to be eliminated later because of declining enrollment.
A Nov. 19 letter to Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) was the first indication from Fenty and Rhee that they will continue former superintendent Clifford B. Janey's plans to eliminate millions of square feet of unused space. Since last summer, the system has operated 141 school buildings while enrollment has dropped from 55,000 to an estimated 49,600 students this school year.
According to the document obtained by The Washington Post, the 24 schools that could close are 16 elementary schools, three middle schools, one high school and four others, such as special education facilities.
Ward 5 has the most, with nine. It has experienced a recent influx of young families moving into such neighborhoods as Brookland and LeDroit Park, but many of them are choosing charter schools or going out of boundary rather than enrolling at neighborhood schools, which have been plagued by declining enrollment and poor test scores. Ward 3 is the only one with no schools on the list.
The document says those schools would be taken "off the list for modernization, targeted repair, or blitz work (excluding things that are necessary for basic quality of life)."
The document also raises questions about the pace of repair work needed to upgrade schools that would take students from closed facilities. According to the list, Brookland Elementary in Northeast would close next year and the students would be sent to nearby Bunker Hill Elementary. Bunker Hill, however, would close two years later.
But the document also says there are plans to "rebuild a new [pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school] on the Brookland site. This is a high priority to move up. Can we get a design team up in early '08 and complete construction by '10?"
Fenty and Rhee plan to brief council members at a regularly scheduled breakfast meeting this morning, then hold an 11 a.m. news conference at Taft Center in Northeast Washington to discuss the closures.
The money Fenty (D) is seeking is part of a $96.1 million one-time request from the city's supplemental funds to fill the school system's budget gaps and finance other education programs. Consultants Alvarez & Marsal discovered the shortfalls, Fenty said, leading him to submit legislation asking the council for the one-time payment to cover potential losses.
Fenty asked the council to approve his request on an emergency basis, because without the money, he said, the schools would have to "dramatically reduce expenditures during the current year," which "would invariably result in cuts to local schools." It is not clear whether Gray will heed that request.
In his letter, Fenty made clear that he and Rhee plan to take a different tack to shutting schools than Janey's staggered plans to close 19 underenrolled schools over several years.
"The intent is to rightsize the facilities inventory to match enrollment through a single, unified consolidation plan instead of a multi-year approach," Fenty wrote. "The mayor and chancellor are committed to rightsizing the DCPS as soon as possible."
The closures could save the school system an estimated $23.7 million in costs associated with utilities, operational maintenance and staff, including principals, custodians and clerical employees, according to the mayor's letter.
For months, rumors about school closures have left parents and teachers nervous and uncertain about where to enroll their children next year. Many private and charter schools have started open houses and parent information nights to recruit students. Meanwhile, parents who are considering a school outside their neighborhood are researching their options now in anticipation of the January deadline for out-of-boundary applications.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a former school board member, said he supported Rhee and Fenty's effort to get the funding as soon as possible and their plans to eliminate unused space. But he said he wants to know the reasons behind the selections for closure.
"It's important that the community sees a rational plan that invests in and maintains our best assets," Wells said.
Some school leaders say Rhee has told them in meetings that their buildings would close.
Janet Myers, president of the PTA at West Elementary, said Rhee told her in a meeting this month with the school principal and council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) that students from nearby Truesdell Elementary would join West students next year, while Truesdell is being modernized. Once that work is done, all of the students will move into Truesdell, and West will close, Myers said Rhee told her.
Neither Truesdell nor West, however, is on the list prepared by Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso's office.
"Our parents are getting very leery, because they want to have a say in what the education plan is going to be," said Myers, whose daughter, Dana, is a fifth-grader. "We just need to know something."
The mayor wrote that closing schools is one piece of the education overhaul he and Rhee will undertake in their first year running the school system.
The system "will prepare to scale back its facilities inventory, implement personnel reforms, reward high-performing employees and retain a faculty that matches the needs of students," the mayor wrote.
If the council gives Rhee enhanced authority to fire central office employees, the school system would save $5 million from that central office restructuring, the mayor wrote.
As for teaching staff, the mayor wrote that the system would save an estimated $2.9 million by cutting teachers, aides and assistant principals by next summer. The goal is to make sure that the teaching staff matches the anticipated enrollment, the mayor wrote.
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.