Angry Parents Question School Closings

D.C. Council Member Harry Thomas Jr. set up a meeting to discuss proposed school closings, including seven in Ward 5, which he represents.
D.C. Council Member Harry Thomas Jr. set up a meeting to discuss proposed school closings, including seven in Ward 5, which he represents. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

D.C. education leaders encountered a hostile crowd of parents and community leaders in Ward 5 last night as they tried for the first time to explain to residents Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's proposal to close 23 schools.

Seven of the 23 are in Ward 5, where more than 200 people turned out at Bertie Backus Middle School in Northeast for a town hall meeting scheduled by D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5). Thomas set up the forum to start a community dialogue on the closings after learning last week of what was envisioned for his ward.

In his opening remarks last night, Thomas told listeners that he understood that they had serious concerns that he hoped to tackle.

"We have to make sure that we have equal services in all of our schools in the city," he said.

But the meeting rapidly grew heated when angry parents from John Burroughs Elementary School shouted over Abigail Smith, a staff member from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, as she explained in a PowerPoint presentation the demographics that influenced how the 23 schools were selected. Thomas took the microphone and attempted to quiet the crowd, but he, too, was jeered.

"Why should we listen to you?" said a parent who, clutching her toddler daughter, jumped up and confronted the council member. "You didn't listen to us! Did you call me? Did you ask me?"

Officials scrapped a prepared agenda for the meeting, and Rhee took questions directly from the crowd.

Clarence Cherry, president of the John Burroughs Elementary PTA, listed accomplishments at the school, including a successful autism program, national accreditation and the fact that students met reading and math benchmarks on standardized tests last year.

"Why would you put something that works together with something that is not working?" Cherry demanded, referring to the plan to merge Burroughs students and other Ward 5 students into a new pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school at Taft Center.

Rhee stoically listened to the parental concerns. "I understand completely where you're coming from," she said. "I want you to express any insight and information to help us."

The schools facing closure in Ward 5 are M.M. Washington Career High School; Bertie Backus Middle; and John Burroughs, J.F. Cook, Bunker Hill and Slowe elementaries. In addition, Young Elementary and Browne Middle, which are adjacent, would be combined at one location into a pre-K to eighth-grade school.

The indignation that officials faced last night suggested the possibility of a rocky road for the plan.

Other community forums have been scheduled in which education officials plan to talk about the reasons behind and the benefits of the proposal to close the 23 schools and move three special education programs.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has told the D.C. Council that the plan could save the school system $23.6 million, money that could help the school system address a budget shortfall. Alvarez and Marsal, a New York-based consulting firm, wrote in a Nov. 26 letter to Rhee that the school system was facing a $155 million deficit and urged her to immediately cut costs. The memo follows a letter from the school system's chief financial officer, Pamela Graham, who wrote Nov. 21 that the school system is facing a $100 million shortfall. Rhee told council members last week that she was looking into the accuracy of Graham's analysis.

In a letter to Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) last month asking for supplemental funds, Fenty said part of the issue is that the school system operates too many buildings for its declining enrollment. Closing schools, the mayor said, is one way to address the problem.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company