The dismal survey data highlighted by DCPS at Tuesday’s D.C. Council middle school hearing had the effect of obscuring a crucial take-away: that a new round of school closings is not a question of if, but only how extensive.

When the hammer falls, probably sometime before the end of the year, it will be difficult to make the case that Chancellor Kaya Henderson took school communities by surprise. Back in March, during the rollout of FY12 school level budgets, she made plain in a message to parents that the city can no longer afford to operate more than 40 schools with fewer than 300 students--more than half of them in Wards 6, 7 and 8. The decision this summer to commission a school-capacity study from the Illinois Facilities Fund --initiated by Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright--sent up another hard-to-miss flag that big changes are coming.

Henderson’s testimony Tuesday, while ostensibly about middle schools, once again carried the message. She cited the Prince William County system, which serves 80,000 students across 90 schools (79,115 in 89 schools, according to the PW Web site). DCPS, by contrast, has 47,000 students enrolled in 125 schools.

“We have not planned well,” Henderson said.

She added later: “I expect to spend this winter, hunkered down with my team and the deputy mayor’s team.” Their objective will be how to make DCPS smaller and, hopefully, more effective.