- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000

Enrollment at District of Columbia public schools will drop by at least 25 percent over the next decade, prompting the likely closure of some nearly empty school buildings, according to a D.C. financial control board report obtained by The Washington Times.

The report, titled "The Educational Facilities Master Plan," shows that dozens of public schools have vacancy rates of 40 percent or more and suggests that many rundown school buildings should no longer be used.

"What we need is a smaller number of better schools," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. "Keeping schools open just to make people in the neighborhood feel good is foolish."

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams sounded a note of caution about the report.

"It raises important questions for our community," the mayor said in a statement. "We should resist the temptation to make conclusions at this stage, however."

He said the plan "merits serious review" but cautioned that it is still only a draft.

"In any event, providing a good education to our children must remain our paramount concern," Mr. Williams said.

The report refers to the city's improved economy, but notes that people moving into the District tend to have fewer children than those who move out.

At the same time, the birth rate continues to decline, and charter schools draw thousands of students from the traditional public school system.

In the report's best-case scenario a strong increase in owner-occupied housing and new immigrant households the current public school enrollment of 70,700 will drop by 25 percent, to 53,000, over the next 10 years.

In its the worst-case scenario, enrollment will fall by 36 percent, to 45,000, if current trends in birth rates and departure continue.

The report found that the city's public elementary and high schools are 27 percent vacant and the city's junior high and middle schools are only 50 percent filled.

The "master plan" was compiled by the D.C. school board, community leaders, consultants and education experts. It is based on current birth rates, housing data, employment statistics and other demographic information.

The financial control board took control of D.C. public schools from the school board in 1996, citing low test scores and crumbling buildings.

Some city leaders say they don't trust the report's findings.

"Right now, it is too premature to talk about closing schools," said council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the education committee. "I'm going to ask the control board to revisit these demographics."

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, said she, too, is eager "to prove the demographers wrong."

"Yes, we need to take a look at our facilities and use them better and smarter," she said. "But educational goals should drive the process. Look at the successful schools and emulate those."

Though several schools operate well below their capacity for students, crowding continues at a few popular elementary schools. Current policy allows parents to send their children to any school in the city, so many forsake nearby schools for those with highly regarded programs.

The U.S. General Accounting Office admonished the public school systems in 1997 for maintaining sloppy accounting. Nearly a dozen D.C. schools were closed that year, and some have remained unused, creating eyesores in neighborhoods.

"Any time you talk about closing schools in the District, rationality goes out the window," Mr. Evans said. "With all the politics and racial and ward division, it is a nightmare."

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, cautioned against rushing to sell off school property.

"There is a lot of value in that inventory," he said. "We should mothball those structures and redraw the school boundaries or combine schools. Then we should improve our schools and stop losing young families to the suburbs."

Winnifred Freeman, a neighborhood advisory commissioner in Ward 8, said she is reluctant to part with school buildings, even though the three middle schools in her ward are more than half empty.

"Charter schools are already a threat to the school system, and I don't want to do anything that would diminish the schools," she said. "We are revitalizing this area and there may be other services that could be provided in that same space."

Many of the 6,000 students who attend D.C. charter schools previously were enrolled in the traditional school system.

D.C. School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman said through a spokeswoman that her job will be to provide a quality education for students, no matter what the enrollment.

"The broader issue is for the community to decide whether schools should be closed or consolidated," said spokeswoman Devonya Smith. "Whatever decision is made, it should be driven by what a successful school looks like."

Officials of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, are eager to lease unused school property but have been stymied, they say, by an unfriendly and disorganized property management process.

Recently Mrs. Ackerman announced plans to install a magnet program at Paul Junior High School, which is slated to convert to charter status in the fall. That plan would put hundreds more students in the building than it was designed to hold. Mrs. Ackerman, who disputes the capacity of the Paul building, declined to put her program in either of two nearby middle schools, Backus and Macfarland, which are 44 percent and 45 percent empty, respectively.

"This confirms what we have been saying for two years," said Robert I. Cane, executive director of a local charter advocacy group. "There are millions of feet of space available in DCPS buildings that is desperately needed by charter schools to serve District residents."

Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on the District, has reprimanded school officials for letting surplus buildings languish and for blocking charter schools from using them.

The report found that school conditions had not improved significantly since the last facilities study was conducted in 1995, and that most of the negative conclusions of that report are still true.

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