- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Closing and consolidating schools, and laying off teachers, because of shrinking enrollments are nothing new for urban districts from Washington, D.C., to San Antonio. Kansas City, Mo., joined the list in early March, when authorities there voted to shutter nearly half its schoolhouses and lay off hundreds of employees. Detroit became the headliner last week, when the state’s financial overseer announced dozens of schools will close this school year.

In many respects, the school officials are learning lessons in how not to run a school system.

The Kansas City School Board voted 5-4 on March 10 to close 29 of its 61 schools and prepare pink slips for an estimated 700 employees, including nearly 300 teachers. This turnabout follows years of dwindling enrollment and bad management decisions after the Kansas City system received $2 billion in a desegregation plan. Among the many amenities officials spent that money on to lure families back to the Kansas City system was an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The growing public charter school movement cut into traditional school populations, too, as parents were no longer forced to send their children to troubled neighborhood schools. More and more parents are home-schooling their children. And middle-class flight proved to be damaging to urban districts, such as that of the nation’s capital, where parents with school-age children fled to Maryland and Virginia; Kansas City, where entire schools left the Kansas City School District for the suburbs; and Detroit, where the home-foreclosure blight is as noticeable as long-ago abandoned schoolhouses.

Between now and the opening of the next academic year, school authorities in Kansas City and elsewhere will reconfigure busing routes, reassign principals and teachers, as well as janitorial and cafeteria staff, and try to keep parents up-to-date on changes.

Teachers unions are acting out their opposition. The Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) is asking its members “to wear black to school on Wednesdays to show solidarity with the secretaries’ union, which is still working without a contract.” It’s also planning rallies, including one scheduled for April 10 in Washington, D.C. — where they likely will draw support from the Teamsters and Washington Teachers Union.

The DFT Web site said the purpose of its march on Washington is to: “Demand that Arne Duncan Stop Toying with Our Students’ Lives!; “End the ‘Race to the Top’ Scheme Now!”; “Release all federal education funds to the states based on need!”; “End the attacks on public school teachers and students!”; and “No privatization of education!” The union even brought race into the debate: “No separate and unequal!” and “Restore Dr. King’s vision for America!”

While negotiating and renegotiating with unions are part and parcel of successful school-reform and budgeting efforts, an integral component of success is a different face-to-face issue: What to do with closed school facilities?

There are lessons to be learned from Washington, Detroit and Minneapolis.

D.C. Public Schools has closed dozens of schools, including some just last year, since a 1990 report first urged and laid out a road map for reform and efficiency. Many of the former schools sat decaying and ravaged until they were turned over to charter schools. In some instances, the charters totally gutted a building, and sometimes all that was necessary was modernizing. Charter schools often have to fight to get buildings from the public school system despite the fact that federal law gives charters first right of refusal.

In Minneapolis in 2007, parents and city officials worked hand-in-hand to determine how best to dispose of surplus schools, and whether they should dispose of them at all. Called the Community Asset Development Process, the plan considered 10 properties in various neighborhoods. Some of the facilities stayed in the school system’s inventory, and sometimes the recommendations proposed commercial use — which could generate revenue.

Kansas City’s superintendent said there was no choice but to face facts: In the mid-1960s, Kansas had an enrollment of 77,000 students; in the mid-1980s, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of its desegregation plan, it began receiving $2 billion in state compensation, but eight schools left the Kansas City district to join suburban districts; today, Kansas City has only 17,000 students and is on the verge of bankruptcy.

The superintendent, John Covington, is Kansas City’s fourth superintendent since 2006, having been appointed in July 2009. When he announced the closings and layoffs on March 10, he also promised a transformation that will continue providing quality programs and services. On March 20, Mr. Covington unveiled the outline for that transformation, which includes longer school days, additional feeding programs and a marketing strategy to lure parents.

Right now, however, there’s not much discussion about what Kansas City officials will do with the schoolhouses once they are closed. It’s a big issue in Detroit, too.

“Vacant Detroit schools, like the city’s more than 33,000 empty houses, are treasure troves for thieves seeking metal piping and copper wire to illegally sell as scrap. To get to the booty, plywood boards and bolted metal grates are ripped away; interior tiled and brick walls smashed with sledgehammers,” the Associated Press reported last week.

“Now, a drastic plan to shutter a quarter of Detroit’s public schools in June will add 45 more empty buildings to the dozens of district-owned properties dominating already blight-ravaged neighborhoods.”

Kansas City could learn several lessons from Washington, Minneapolis and Detroit.