- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

For several months there have been rumors about which schools will be closed as the District's school-age population continues to shrink. Such D.C. rumblings are usual as facilities age, young singles and childless couples move in, and families continue to move out. Well, the rumors are no more. School officials have a plan in hand, and it should remain a plan until after the 2000 Census.

According to a draft of the D.C. Public Schools' "Educational Facilities Master Plan," a copy of which was obtained by editors of this page, officials used a number of variables before flagging dozens of school buildings either to close, modernize or be replaced. Most of the affected sites are elementary schools. For example, 10 schools are slated for major renovations or replacement, including Noyes Elementary in the Brookland section of Northeast and Key Elementary in the Palisades area of Northwest. Another school, Kelly Miller Middle School, will be replaced by a new building.

The plan also proposes selling nine vacant school buildings and tearing down five others, including a few that house human service programs. The school system could certainly use the money generated by the sale or lease of those properties, and depressed neighborhoods and promising charter schools would benefit as well.

Nonetheless, the very thought of closing schools always stirs up an emotional debate. Critics either doubt the veracity of the data compiled to justify closings or the socioeconomic motives behind such proposals. That is understandable given the fact the majority of schools are in majority-black neighborhoods and given the fact D.C. Public Schools used to keep two sets of books on finances and assets. One set, which the public was permitted to see, was purely show and tell. That was the set they would trot out to justify increases in funding. The other set, the one that detailed the real deal, was locked away. Fortunately, those days are over. But the potential to waste precious planning time and scarce capital dollars remains.

The facilities plan relies heavily on population trends and trends to determine future enrollments and classroom needs. Problem is, while the District continues to lure new residents, the newer households are made up of mostly wage-earning adults. Accordingly, births and school enrollments are declining. There are far fewer students enrolled today than 10 years ago, 71,000 vs. 81,000. There are about 7,700 live births a year compared to 12,000 live births in 1990. Moreover, charter-school enrollment is up, condo sales are up and dropout rates are up. How all those current variables will affect future educational needs remains uncertain.

So, given all those circumstances it makes perfectly good sense to lay the framework for such expensive capital projects as building new schools, modernizing old ones and razing aged ones. And, to be sure, the mayor, the D.C. Council, the superintendent and the control board are to be commended for following up on what they began in 1996. But officials must proceed with caution. At this point, city officials can easily predict neighborhood reaction to their plan, but they can hardly outplan the 2000 Census.

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