Thursday’s D.C. Council hearing was the first opportunity for public debate over D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 20 of the District’s schools. It lasted seven hours. Here are four takeaways:
Council members appear to agree that schools must close. Now the question is: Which schools?
Henderson argues that under-enrolled schools end up spending a disproportionate number of dollars on custodians, administrators and other non-instructional personnel. Council members seemed to buy her logic.
“Consolidation makes sense,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).
But council members signalled their intent to oppose the closure of certain schools in their own wards. Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) mentioned Ferebee-Hope Elementary. Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) flagged Smothers Elementary. Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said he had many questions about plans for Marshall Elementary.
And Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) opposes closing the Ward 2 schools on Henderson’s list: Garrison Elementary and Francis-Stevens Education Campus. Parents are up in arms at both of those schools.
Henderson told reporters earlier this week that if one school comes off the list, another must be added. “If it’s not this school, it’s that school,” she said.
There’s a general consensus that the last round of closures was a bust. So what will the chancellor do differently this time?
Then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s closure of 23 schools in 2008 cost far more than anticipated and led to the exodus of thousands of kids from the school system.
“Why would we do this again?” asked Mary Levy, an education finance lawyer and longtime DCPS budget watchdog who warned of a vicious cycle of decreasing enrollments and more closures in the future.
Council members agreed that the 2008 closures hadn’t achieved their goals. (“Atrocious,” said Barry, who said the closures led to violence when kids were moved into schools with kids from rival neighborhoods. “They were handled poorly from the very beginning.)
The council members said the chancellor’s job is to avoid the mistakes of the past.
That means coming up with a strategy to retain students, council members said, and ensuring that whatever money is saved through closures is directed toward better academic programs for kids.
“Whether or not this succeeds depends I think upon its execution,” said David Catania (I-At Large). If we are going to go through this we have to learn from our mistakes. … We have to make sure that the money follows the kids and it actually results in substantive improvements to education.”
The school system needs to figure out why families are leaving — and then fix the root problems.
“We need a plan that’s forward looking and attempts to save our schools, not wait until things are on a downward spiral and then say we have to close some,” said Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3).