On the national level, President Obama and members of Congress are pivoting off the election right into a high-stakes issues: how to avoid drastic “fiscal cliff” spending cuts. In District politics, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council members are doing their own pivot — to school closings.
Two D.C. Council members, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Kenyan McDuffie (D), said they expect D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya K. Henderson to publicly reveal the closure list Tuesday. They and two other members, Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), said they’d been briefed by Henderson either generally or specifically on her closure plans, but all declined to give specifics about the briefings.
“I will allow the chancellor to make the announcement,” said McDuffie. “It’s really going to depend on the schools that are closed, and the reasoning and the rationale for the closure. I am going to need to see that, and the community is going to need to see that, before I provide any more comment.”
Mendelson said Henderson has generally indicated she’ll be targeting underenrolled schools, which is not much of a surprise. “I know there are some schools that are grossly underenrolled,” he said. “It’s hard to justify keeping those schools open. … If you want librarians and art teachers in every school, you have to have a population sufficient to pay for it.” With those concerns in mind, he said, school closures are “not dead on arrival.”
In terms of the politics of the school closures, much will depend on the geographic distribution of the schools. A DCPS-commissioned study released in January identified neighborhood clusters in wards 4, 5, 7 and 8 high in underenrolled, underperforming “Tier 4” schools thought to be a particularly high risk for closure. It may also depend on what types of schools will be closed: Unlike in 2008, Henderson may well seek to close a high school, which tend to have larger student bodies, more community support and “brand equity,” and more active alumni bases than lower-level schools. (Given their underenrollment, poor student performance and lack of recent modernization, Ward 5’s Spingarn and Ward 4’s Coolidge and Roosevelt are thought to be at greatest risk.)
Every council member said they were looking forward to Henderson making her case as to why particular schools should be closed. McDuffie said some in his ward are “on edge” given the rapid-fire process undertaken in the last round of school closings five years ago. At that time then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed closing 23 schools — seven of them in McDuffie’s Ward 5 — accompanied by an ill-conceived plan to hold 23 simultaneous hearing on the closings rather than a few larger ones.
The D.C. Public Schools have not detailed plans yet for community meetings that will almost certainly accompany the new round of closings. Expect to hear more about those Tuesday.
Even the best explanation and the best process and the most meetings won’t placate everybody, Alexander added: “There’s never going to be satisfaction. There’s always going to be disappointment when schools close, no matter what.”