In the past decade, many school districts faced the fact that declining enrollments resulted in schools that were operating far below their capacity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the D.C. public schools, where, we are again told, nearly a third of the classroom seats are empty. Public school districts such as Montgomery County's saw the inefficiency of this, the money that could be saved, the academic benefits of consolidating underenrolled schools and made the tough decision to close several buildings. It was by no means an error-free enterprise, but it had to be undertaken.
The District, on the other hand, has spent its time avoiding action. School board members, too concerned with angering voters by closing buildings in their wards, argued for keeping neighborhood schools open, even those where as much as 70 percent of the space is unoccupied. The plan that was supposed to eliminate much of the vacant space by leasing it to private firms, organizations and city departments has not worked. With the glut of new downtown office space, few firms are interested in old school buildings.
The board needs to think seriously about closing some of those old buildings for several reasons. The school system spends $67 million a year to clean, heat and maintain some of the oldest and most dilapidated school buildings in the area. There are several that need major repairs, such as roof replacements. Much might be saved by closing some of them.
And there are other good reasons. Underenrolled schools are obliged to share teachers, even principals. Having a consolidated school with full- time teachers and administrators who are accessible every day is much better. Consolidated schools have a bigger pool of teachers, freeing some for remediation, advanced work and special projects and events. Schools with a shortage of books or equipment would be helped by consolidation too.
Those were the arguments school system officials made to skeptical parents when they joined the Slater-Langston and Cook elementary schools last summer. They are sound arguments and good reasons for closing more underenrolled schools. The school board needs to show more courage on this subject.