D.C. Schools Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie said yesterday her school closings plan, rejected by the school board Monday, is still alive and can be reconsidered. Members of the board differed on her assessment.
In McKenzie's first major setback as superintendent, her plan to close 14 schools was rejected by a 7-to-4 margin on Monday. The action left the 94,000-pupil school system with an estimated 40,000 empty classroom seats, and represented the second time in the last four years the board has backed away from an ambitious school closing plan.
"The issue is not dead," McKenzie said yesterday. "While the board did not vote to deal with the 14 schools recommended for closing , it did not vote to not deal with the issue of school closures at all."
Her position was buoyed yesterday when two of the board members who voted against her proposal on Monday -- R. David Hall (Ward 2) and Wanda Washburn (Ward 3) -- said they would support closing some of the schools on the superintendent's list, though not all 14, if a new vote were held. Another board member, R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), said after the Monday meeting that he, too, would support closing some of the schools.
Their votes, along with the votes of those four board members who supported McKenzie on Monday, would form a theoretical majority in favor of closing at least some schools. There was a question of whether the board's procedures allow reconsideration of the measure.
Frank Smith (Ward 1), who had been one of the strongest supporters of school closings and who voted for McKenzie's plan, said he thought the board would be violating its own rules if it were to take another vote. He said he would "not be a party" to a motion to reconsider McKenzie's plan.
"The board made its decision on Monday," he said. "It would be ridiculous to agonize over it any further."
Board member John E. Warren (Ward 6) said he and a group of parents would seek a court order against the board if a majority of its members tried to take another vote on the matter. McKenzie recommended two schools in Warren's ward for closing.
Warren said the board "got carried away and voted down the total school closings package" on Monday and cannot now, under the board rules, vote on each school individually, as most of the members would like to do.
McKenzie and board President David H. Eaton said they disagree, contending that the proposal still is before the board since McKenzie has not withdrawn it. They contend that Eaton, as president, effectively could reactivate the measure and bring about another vote.
Washburn and Hall both said they will urge another vote. They said they voted against the total package because they objected to closing specific schools -- including, in each case, schools that serve their respective wards -- but that they favored some school closings.
Several board members said they were concerned that if they do not close any schools at all, they would endanger the school system's chances of having Congress approve their budget request of $305 million for the upcoming school year, more than $50 million higher than the schools' current appropriation.
Members of the congressional subcommittees that oversee the city's budget have recommended that the school system consider closing schools in light of its constantly declining enrollment, which has been decreasing by about 5,000 students a year.
Spokesmen for Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), chairmen of the Senate and House appropriating committees for the District of Columbia, declined comment yesterday, but said the committees would examine the issue at future hearings.
"More important, I think, is the way we'll look in front of the City Council next year," said board Vice President Nathaniel Bush, who voted for the school closings. "The council added $20 million to our budget request this year. Next year is not an election year. There will be no incentive for them to do the same unless we can exhibit that we are being more efficient with our money."
Warren said his strident opposition to the closings stems from his belief that the board should hold off until it "fully exhausts" the possibility of leasing space in under-used schools to community groups and organizations.
The board does not now have the authority to lease space, but is seeking it through legislation currently in the City Council's government operations committee.
In 1978, then-superintendent Vincent E. Reed proposed closing 23 schools. The board, after community protest, decided to close only nine.