More than 100 corporations, agencies and private citizens have expressed interest in the last two weeks in leasing space in the 14 underused D.C. public schools recommended for closing, but several Board of Education members say it is still likely that some of those schools will have to close.
The board is scheduled to take a preliminary vote on school closings tomorrow afternoon, after postponing action two weeks ago so that Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie could advertise the availability of the space. If the board votes to accept the superintendent's school closing list, a public hearing will be scheduled on each school. A final vote will be taken in June.
Board member R. David Hall (Ward 2), who has advocated leasing space in underused schools as a way of keeping them open, said the board has three options: It could close some buildings and lease them out entirely, it could lease portions of the buildings while keeping the educational program intact, or it could keep the schools open as they are.
"The important thing is that these schools don't just become boarded up," said board member Frank Smith (Ward 1), an advocate of school closings.
School enrollment has dropped steadily in recent years to about 94,000 this year. McKenzie maintains that the school system has 40,000 empty seats and could save $100,000 to $200,000 a year for every school closed.
Four board members--including President David H. Eaton (at large), Vice President Nathaniel Bush (Ward 7), Eugene Kinlow (at large) and Smith--said they are prepared to vote tomorrow to accept the superintendent's recommendation to close some schools. Four board members, R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), Wanda Washburn (Ward 3), Linda Cropp (Ward 4) and Hall (Ward 2), said they were undecided.
John E. Warren, who represents Ward 6, where two schools are proposed for closing, said he would encourage the board to work out lease agreements as a way to keep all 14 schools open. Bettie G. Benjamin, who represents Ward 5, where four schools are slated for closing, and at-large member Barbara Lett Simmons declined to comment.
Eaton said the board does not now have the authority to lease space in schools, but that legislation in the City Council's government operations committee proposes to give the board this authority. Eaton said he spent several hours on Friday discussing the matter with council member William Spaulding (D-Ward 5), chairman of the government operations committee, but that further discussion was needed to move the legislation forward.
McKenzie released a report Friday that said that 101 agencies and individuals had expressed interest in leasing space in school buildings. These included several Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, nonprofit organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens and some city agencies such as the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and the D.C. Fire Department. Some churches, such as the Third Street Church of God and Plymouth Congregational Church, and several cultural groups such as the Washington Workshop for the Performing Arts and First Theater Company, also inquired about the space.
Board members have been holding meetings over the last two weeks with parents from the schools on the superintendent's list and encountering stiff opposition to McKenzie's proposals. At a meeting Thursday night at the Carver Elementary School at 45th and Lee streets NE, several parents complained to Bush, their ward representative, that the superintendent had designated the space at that school used to house a regional administrative office as empty classrooms.
The parents argued that under the superintendent's formula for assessing empty space, Carver appears to be operating at only 30 percent of its capacity. If the superintendent had counted just the space in the school that is used for the educational program, the school would be operating at 75 percent capacity, the parents argued.
Brenda Dunson, who worked on the superintendent's school-closing report, said that in many schools classroom areas used for offices, libraries or special programs were designated as empty classroom space if the space was originally designed for classrooms. She said many schools, like Carver, which was built for 573 students and has only 177, house offices and programs that could easily be moved elsewhere.
Bush told the gathering that some of the statistics in the 1,000-page report on which McKenzie based her recommendations "were clearly inaccurate." The superintendent's staff has not changed any of the information in the report in light of board members' and citizens' complaints that some of the statistical information is either inaccurate or outdated.
Bush told the Ward 7 residents that he would not vote to close Carver, but added in a later interview, "We can't keep public schools open on the one hand, and then have some schools lacking supplies or books because we're keeping half-empty schools open."
At a meeting on Friday, parents from the Payne Elementary School at 15th and C streets SE, another school proposed for closing, told Assistant Superintendent William Brown that it would be a waste of taxpayers' money to close Payne. A new air-conditioned and carpeted wing was added eight years ago.
The parents and school staff also said that Payne actually has more students enrolled than the superintendent's report says it has. The parents also said that the superintendent's staff did not take into consideration the number of special programs, such as a recreation department center and a therapeutic nursery for emotionally disturbed children that are housed at the school. They also said Payne is the meeting place in the evening for creative writing students, a senior citizens group and teen and adult gospel clubs.
Brown told the group that special programs currently housed at Payne could be moved to other nearby schools.