Pr. George's Education Board Votes to Close 8 Schools

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

Eight Prince George's County schools, most of them inside the Capital Beltway or in the southern part of the county, will close next year under a revised plan the Board of Education approved last night, saving the school system nearly $6 million in a tight budget year.

The unanimous vote came after two months of tinkering and debate over the plan, which is the most significant contraction for Prince George's in recent years and one of the most notable in that time for any system in suburban Washington. But last night there was little debate over final changes to the plan, which removed Oakcrest and Dodge Park elementary schools in Landover and Concord Elementary in District Heights from the closure list because they were reasonably close to student capacity, had good academic records and were in acceptable physical condition.

The schools to be closed are G. Gardner Shugart Middle in Temple Hills and seven elementary schools: Matthew Henson and John Carroll in Landover, John E. Howard in Capitol Heights, Berkshire in District Heights, Morningside in Suitland, Owens Road in Oxon Hill and Middleton Valley in Temple Hills. Students attending schools targeted for closure will be sent to nearby schools or others with space. The emptied schools will be maintained, and school officials have suggested that the buildings could be used for specialty programs such as language immersion.

The plan also merges Henry G. Ferguson Elementary and Eugene Burroughs Middle in Accokeek into a school that spans pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Andrew Jackson Middle and Samuel P. Massie Elementary in Forestville and William W. Hall Elementary in Capitol Heights will be converted to pre-K through eighth grade. Benjamin D. Foulois Elementary in Suitland will run from kindergarten through eighth grade and offer a performing arts program.

School board members said the plan sets the stage for providing students in less-affluent parts of the county access to programs that have often been concentrated elsewhere.

"The reason for the consolidations was never about cost," said Vice Chairman Ron Watson (At Large). "It was about capacity, it was about access and it was about programs."

The revised proposal saves $5.8 million in the coming fiscal year and eliminates more than 100 jobs, including eight principals, six assistant principals and 20 classroom teachers. The jobs of many support staff members such as guidance counselors and custodians will also be eliminated. It is unclear whether the employees would be laid off or reassigned to vacant positions.

Since its introduction Jan. 22, the closure plan has evolved in response to numerous public hearings and major shifts in the fiscal outlook as federal, state and county decisions have buffeted the school system's $1.6 billion annual budget.

The plan, the first phase of a broad redrawing of school boundaries across the county, originally targeted a dozen schools. Eleven were inside the Beltway, and eight were south of Maryland Route 214.

The student population in those regions has been declining in recent years, as it has been across Maryland, because of a dip in the birth rate several years ago. A recent study found that the 128,000-student Prince George's school system -- second-largest in the state -- had 9,800 excess seats and that 46 elementary, nine middle and five high schools had less than 80 percent of enrollment.

Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary in Glenarden and District Heights Elementary were removed from the closure list in recent weeks, and Dodge Park Elementary was added. Administrators also scrapped a proposal to move the talented-and-gifted program at Glenarden Woods Elementary to Robert Gray Elementary in Capitol Heights after it ran into powerful public opposition.

A stiff fight was also put up against Oakcrest's inclusion on the list, with at least 200 parents and students turning out at one meeting to discuss the proposal.

"I am so relieved," Beth McCracken-Harness, an Oakcrest parent who has written several protest letters to school administrators, wrote in an e-mail before last night's meeting. "Oakcrest is a good school. I am glad we are not throwing it away."

School board members approached the final vote with a sense of relief and triumph.

"I know that this conversation has been quite difficult," said Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large). "It's very emotional for me because I really believe that it's the right decision. I know that sometimes you can't see that rainbow at the end of the tunnel right away, but it's there, and, parents, we are going to walk through the tunnel together."

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