Hearings On School Closures Multiply

D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty plan to attend some hearings. Officials say parents will get more say on specific schools. (Photo: Pouya Dianat / The Washington Post)
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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 28, 2007

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration said this week that it will hold 23 public hearings at the same time Jan. 17 to seek input on a plan to close school buildings, prompting complaints from residents who contend that officials are seeking to minimize opposition.

Fenty (D) and schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have announced plans to close 23 schools by next summer, saying the consolidation will save money that can be spent on classroom initiatives such as music and art. Parents and activists have objected, saying the plan could harm successful schools and wreak havoc on communities.

Rhee has attended community meetings to discuss her closings plan with residents. The administration had initially said it would hold one official public hearing Jan. 17 at McKinley Technology High School. But school system officials moved Wednesday to amend the public hearing notice in the D.C. Registry to reflect plans for 23 hearings that will begin at 6 p.m. at different schools.

Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Rhee, said yesterday that the goal is to allow parents to attend hearings tailored to their concerns about specific schools scheduled for closure. Smaller hearings will ease commutes and let parents express their concerns without waiting for hours as others testify about unrelated schools, Hobson said.

"The idea is to capture the opinions and get concerns about each individual school community," Hobson said. "We don't want people to have to stay at the hearing until 2 o'clock in the morning."

But school activists said yesterday that they think the administration is trying to minimize opposition by splitting the community. Instead of one big show of force, the opposition will be limited to smaller gatherings, they said.

"This is divide and conquer," said Cherita Whiting, whose son is in the school system.

"Holding hearings at 23 schools on the same day and time is irrational," said Robert Vinson Brannum, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 5. "Parents could have kids at a number of different schools."

And, the activists said, Fenty and Rhee will not be able to attend each hearing.

"The idea when people go to a hearing is that there is not just talking, but that someone is listening -- the people who have the power and are making the decisions," said Marc Borbely, an activist who has helped win more funding for school modernizations. "Who's going to be at each of these 23 hearings?"

Hobson said that school system personnel will be at each hearing and that Fenty, Rhee and Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, will travel to several meetings.

Borbely said he thinks that the administration does not intend to alter its school closings plan. He encouraged parents to support a bill introduced by three D.C. Council members that would require any plan to close a school to be subject to council approval.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company