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Closure Plan Stuns Pr. George's Parents

By Nelson Hernandez and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 24, 2009

It wasn't until yesterday morning's announcements came over the public-address system that William Wright, a physical education teacher at Morningside Elementary School in Suitland, put any stock into the word making the rounds among the staff: The school was closing.

"When they announced an emergency staff meeting after school, that's when I started guessing," Wright said. "A meeting even the custodians have to go to? I pretty much knew it had to be bad news."

Morningside, which holds the dubious distinction of being ranked No. 1 in an independent study of Prince George's County schools that need repairs, is one of a dozen schools that might be mothballed next school year as part of a plan to save $11.9 million in next year's drum-tight budget. All but two of the 12 schools are under-enrolled, and some have academic and facility problems. All but one are inside the Capital Beltway.

School officials said they hoped to fill many of the under-enrolled schools with specialty programs, including language immersion, which historically have not been offered to residents of poorer neighborhoods inside the Beltway. But no timeline or specifics have been set for those plans, and with the county facing dire budget cuts because of the economic crisis, it is unclear when it will be able to see its ambitious plans become reality.

Rosalind Johnson, a Board of Education member, said the school system needs to hammer out details of the consolidations before tackling the new programs.

"In these economic times, it is essential that we capture savings by consolidating schools and at the same time seeding the desire of parents and children for other kinds of programs," said Johnson (District 1). "I'm very excited about it. I have no illusions that it will not be difficult. The board is unified that this is a must."

The news, announced late Thursday night at a Board of Education meeting in Upper Marlboro, seeped out slowly at the schools affected.

Interim Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he briefed the school principals involved Thursday, but as late as yesterday afternoon, an official announcement had not been made to teachers, parents or staff workers at Morningside, where on an otherwise normal Friday afternoon, parents idled in the parking lot waiting for their children.

Wright said teachers would likely get the official word at the emergency meeting after all the children were gone.

"It's pretty sad, but I guess it comes with the economic times we're in," said Wright, 34. "Everyone's wondering where all the kids will go. And the teachers are all wondering where we'll be this time next year."

The plan would enable the elimination of 235 jobs, including those of all 12 principals, 36 classroom teachers and a large number of support staff. School officials said they didn't expect any teachers to be laid off, because the number of students would not change. Paraprofessionals, custodians and the array of support staff at each school would be allowed to apply for vacancies elsewhere.

"I don't want anyone to hit the street," said Richard Putney, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2250, the union that represents paraprofessionals and other staff workers. "Hopefully, that's not going to happen."

Putney said he is opposed to closing schools. "They're the folks who run the railroad, and if there are schools that are under capacity, that's it," he said.

Parents at Morningside were shocked to hear the news, and many said they were surprised that the school had been targeted in light of its progress in recent years.

"This is one of the highest-ranked schools in the neighborhood," Chaminada Wright said. Before she enrolled her 6-year-old daughter, Symone, there, she had checked the school's report card on a Web site. "It's a solid school with a good principal and a good record. I don't know where to send my daughter now."

Another parent, Angela Proctor, said she had harbored suspicions ever since Hite announced that he was seeking to close some schools. "I know the school had issues and needed some repairs, but honestly, I didn't think it was that bad," she said as her three children piled into her minivan. "And in terms of tests and grades, I thought we had come up a bit in the last few years."

In addition to its physical problems, Morningside, like most other schools targeted for closure, is under-enrolled. According to a county report, the school has capacity for 364 students but only 209 attend. Other schools are half-empty: Only 219 students are enrolled at John Carroll Elementary in Landover, which has capacity for 456.

School board members said they would do their best to reach out to the communities affected and convince them that the closures are the right decision because they would save the system money and open up opportunities for unique programs.

"Folks are really going to take this tough," said Ron Watson (At Large), the school board's vice chairman. "It's going to be a big change. . . . They really need to understand the benefits of this and why we have to do this. We really don't have a choice."

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