- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Fenty administration didn’t do a good job managing school inventory, and that’s something the Gray administration must keep in mind as the mayor and the District’s school, property-management and financial advisers decide how to reconcile the supply of public school buildings with shifting student bodies and the ever-growing demand for choice.

At the current juncture, about three dozen school buildings might be closed for various reasons.

Chief among them are academic shortcomings, the high costs of maintaining aged and aging buildings and what is called underutilization.

Notice what’s missing?

Saving money.

Know why?

Because planners always say closing or consolidating schools will save X amount of dollars, but they almost always fail to take into account that closing a school involves far more than merely turning out the lights and padlocking the doors.

Now back to the real No. 1 reason, which also is a false premise.

Academic shortcomings are a false premise because education’s bottom line is teaching and learning. So, if the teaching half of the education equation is up to or above par and teachers move to another school following closings, learning should follow suit. But that’s not happening.

In fact, many of the city’s most academically troubled schools are always, always, always situated east of North Capitol and South Capitol streets, two of the national capital’s original lines of demarcation. Those schools are in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

Next is premise No. 3: underutilization.

Many of the traditional public schools in the city are underenrolled, so to speak, because parents have opted instead for neighborhood public charter schools, which fulfill their children’s academic needs and maintain a sense of community.

Charter parents, especially poor parents who saw the traditional public school system nose-diving and didn’t need the No Child Left Behind Act to remind them, grabbed their own empowerment tools and took advantage of charters and specialized schools (some of which are charter schools and some of which are magnet programs in traditional schools).

The voucher programs for poor families cut into traditional enrollment, too, and that’s another issue that leaves the bitterest of tastes in the mouths of anti-school-choicers.

This brings us to No. 2: maintaining aged and aging school facilities.

Let’s face it, the bricks-and-mortar aspect is a huge money vacuum.

Many of our schools are so old they cannot even be retrofitted for 21st-century air conditioning, heating and electrical systems, let alone 20th-century information technologies.

But what’s unacceptable is that city officials spend billions to build and renovate schools and to plop themselves in new facilities. A few examples include offices for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the upper tiers of the school system.
Indeed, after being conveniently located downtown for decades, school officials moved to new offices on North Capitol Street, then moved to a still newer facility by Union Station.

Do I hear you right?

Do I hear you saying closing schools saves money?

Well, explain how the opposite happened with the Fenty administration.

A Sept. 6 report of 23 school closures and consolidations by D.C. Auditor Yolanda Branche found that “school closures resulted in capital asset ‘impairment losses’ of $21.8 million.”

The audit continued: “Including capital costs of $9.7 million identified by [the chief financial officer’s office] additional costs of $8 million identified by the Auditor and $21.8 million of impairment losses, the cost for the closure and consolidation of 23 D.C. Public Schools totaled $39.5 million.”

Now Mr. Fenty, the mayor at that time, had said the intent of the closings and consolidations, which displaced hundreds of children, was to “consolidate resources in fully functioning schools instead of spreading them out across buildings that are half-empty.”

Displacing children is A-OK, because in their minds, it’s all about the bricks and mortar.

I’ve suspected all along that our young people are being set up to fail.

And I bet Mayor Vincent C. Gray doesn’t suspect a thing.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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