Interim D.C. schools chief alludes to school shutdowns

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:38 PM

Interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has warned parents and teachers that the District's large number of low-enrollment schools may no longer be sustainable and that the city might have to seriously consider closing some of them next year.

Although the system's enrollment increased this year for the first time in four decades, the city operates more than 40 schools with fewer than 300 students, more than half located in Wards 6, 7 and 8. Because schools receive most of their funding through a fixed per-pupil allotment, those with light enrollment often struggle to pay for programs or staff positions that are available at bigger schools. In some instances, the smaller schools are subsidized with funding that would otherwise go to more heavily populated ones.

Many of the city's large neighborhood high schools, such as Cardozo and Roosevelt, for example, have lower per-pupil rates than the smaller "specialty" high schools, such as Ellington and School Without Walls.

In a letter about the fiscal 2012 budget e-mailed Friday evening, Henderson said the city and school communities need to examine the issue.

"In the upcoming year, we, as a community, must explore whether or not this structure can be sustained and whether it is in the best interests of our students' academic success and our long-term fiscal viability," Henderson wrote.

Henderson did not name specific schools, and in an e-mail exchange Saturday, she said no immediate action was contemplated. But she added: "If we are serious about providing all of our schools and teachers with the state-of-the-art facilities and resources they deserve equitably, everything has to be on the table for consideration."

Henderson's message came along with budget news that was considerably better than expected a few days ago. A new revenue forecast from Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi provided the school system with an eleventh-hour infusion of money to stave off what was expected to be a round of severe cuts for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Local funds for schools will grow to $612 million, from $564 million.

Henderson also said that summer school, after-school programs and evening credit recovery would continue next year.

Still, the school officials face a $50 million budget gap because of increased personnel costs (the average teacher salary, according to a budget summary released Friday, has increased from $85,000 to $90,600) and a loss of $18.5 million in federal funds. It means that high school class sizes will increase, with student-to-teacher ratios growing from one to 20 to one to 22.

Thirty elementary and middle schools and pre-K through eighth-grade campuses that received enhanced funding for "wraparound services" over the past two years - because they absorbed students from buildings closed in 2008 - will lose that additional support next year.

As a result, they will lose funding for guidance counselors, psychologists, special-education coordinators, and assistant principals and instructional coaches to mentor and advise teachers. Other schools will also lose money for some of those positions.

But the suggestion of possible future closures sparked anxiety Saturday. Crecynthia Hall-Cooper, head of the PTA at Thomas Elementary, a Ward 7 school with 250 students, said it was unwelcome news.

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