The D.C. school board yesterday rejected Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie's recommendation to close 14 schools as a cost-saving measure, arguing that many of them deserved to remain open despite low enrollments.
It was the first major setback for McKenzie since she became superintendent last July. McKenzie had contended that the school system could save $100,000 to $200,000 a year for each school closed, and that students would benefit by moving from the smaller, older schools slated for closing to more modern facilities.
"I don't feel personally wounded," McKenzie said of the 7-to-4 vote to reject her proposal. "To be very candid, I don't know what I'm going to do now other than think and talk this over with board members." She noted that the school board itself had directed her to look at school closings.
It was the second time in recent years that the school board has backed away from an ambitious plan to close schools. In 1978, then-superintendent Vincent E. Reed proposed closing 23 schools, but the board, after community protest, decided to close only nine of them. According to McKenzie's calculations, the board's action yesterday leaves the 94,000-student school system with 40,000 empty seats.
McKenzie's proposal managed yesterday to win the support only of board President David H. Eaton (At-large), board vice president Nathaniel Bush (Ward 7), and members Eugene Kinlow (At-large) and Frank Smith (Ward 2).
Eaton and several other board members said after the vote that McKenzie could revive the school closings issue at some future time, either resubmitting her list of 14 schools or developing a new list.
Board members disagreed over whether there was time to consider a new recommendation before school ends in June, which would be necessary for the logistics of shutting down buildings and reassigning students, teachers and administrators to be conducted over the summer. Some board members contended that the issue was effectively decided for this year.
"This is dead, this is over with," said a jubilant John E. Warren, who represents Ward 6, where two elementary schools were slated for closing. In all, McKenzie had proposed closing 13 elementary schools and one junior high school.
The board gave McKenzie no specific directive on what to do about the school closings in the future, but Warren suggested at the meeting that she pursue talks with organizations and individuals who during the past two weeks have expressed interest in leasing space in the 14 schools.
The board had asked McKenzie to explore the possibility of leasing space as a way of generating income for the school system while keeping these under-enrolled schools open. Over 100 community groups, nonprofit and government agencies and private citizens have responded to advertisements she placed.
Although the board ultimately voted to reject the package of 14 schools, some board members acknowleged after the vote that there were schools on the list that they could have supported for closing.
R. Calvin Lockridge said he could have voted to close Nichols Avenue Elementary School, located in his Ward 8, while R. David Hall said he had no objection to closing the Bundy School for handicapped students in his Ward 2.
The schools McKenzie had recommended for closing included Barnard, at Fourth and Decatur streets NW; Carver, 45th and Lee streets NE; Cleveland, Eighth and G streets NW; Lovejoy, 12 and D streets NE; Nichols Avenue, 2427 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE; Bundy; the Slater and Langston schools, which are side-by-side on North Capitol and P streets NW; Old Congress Heights, Sixth Street and Alabama Avenue SE; Syphax, Half and N streets SW; Payne, 15th and C streets SE; Woodridge, Carlton and Central avenues NE; Hamilton Junior High, Sixth Street and Brentwood Parkway NE; and the Fillmore Art Center, 35th and S streets NW, the only facility in the affluent area west of Rock Creek Park recommended for closing.
McKenzie and her staff said they judged each according to its enrollment in relation to its capacity; its proximity to other schools; the age and state of repair of the school building and the amount of use it receives by the community.
Bettie G. Benjamin, who represents Ward 5 in Northeast, where four schools were proposed for closing, said the students at Woodridge would have to travel a considerable distance to attend another school. She said that Hamilton Junior High, also in her ward, actually is "well-utilized," housing special programs for vocational students and high school dropouts.
Washburn defended Fillmore, noting that the school provides weekly art instruction for 888 students who attend five schools in Wards 2 and 3, although it has no constant student enrollment of its own.
Hall and Lockridge defended Syphax, saying that many young families are moving into the "new Southwest" neighborhood where the school is located.
Eaton said he intends to call a board-superintendent conference within the next few days so that both sides can discuss the future of school closings.
"I am not surprised" by the vote, McKenzie said after yesterday's meeting. "Given the fact that we are a small city with schools located directly in the communities, it is very difficult to deal with closures."