Northwestern High alumni sue school system over closure

Northwestern High alumni have gone to court to try to stop the Baltimore school from closing, as civil rights activists say the plan is discriminatory because shuttering the institution would disproportionately affect low-income, minority students.

The alumni association filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction in Baltimore City Circuit Court last week, arguing that the Baltimore school system's 10-year facilities plan was based on inaccurate and outdated information and would adversely affect hundreds of students from Northwest Baltimore.

The school district concluded that the school — whose graduates include former Mayor Sheila Dixon, city Comptroller Joan Pratt and state Sen. Verna Jones — needs $48 million in renovations and should be closed in 2016. The school board approved the plan last month after city schools CEO Andrés Alonso presented it in November.

"This was the last resort because North Avenue is not listening," said Rita Collins, president of the Northwestern High School Alumni Association, referring to the district headquarter's address. "Yes, the school does need some enhancements, and all schools in Baltimore need enhancements. But the enhancements that they're calling for are made up and over-inflated. Any other school on the chopping block should also take a second look."

City school officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Efforts to fix dilapidated city schools have ramped up in recent months. An estimated 3,000 advocates are scheduled to rally Monday in Annapolis to support the $2.4 billion facilities plan, which would require state lawmakers to commit to giving the city $32 million annually for several years to fund an overhaul of the system's infrastructure. As part of the plan, some schools would close.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating civil rights complaints in several cities where communities say planned school closures primarily displace poor black and Hispanic students. In some of those cities, communities have sued or explored legal action to stop the closures.

Last month, activists from Baltimore and more than a dozen cities met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss a moratorium on school closures throughout the country.

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who has helped mobilize Northwestern's campaign to avoid closure, said he believes the alumni association's lawsuit could spur a deeper look at all of the recommendations in the 10-year plan.

He said the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also plans to file a civil rights complaint under Title VI, which invokes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs.

"It seems like more than a coincidence to us that as we are experiencing school closures here in Baltimore City, places like D.C. and Detroit and Chicago with high concentrations of poor black and Hispanic children are too," he said. "We believe it's time for Baltimore to join this movement to preserve public education in black and brown neighborhoods."

Baltimore's plan calls for the closure of 26 school buildings, and the axing or merging of 29 programs. The savings and additional funding would be used to renovate or rebuild 136 facilities. The plan also would position the system to use 77 percent of its infrastructure, up from the current 65 percent.

City school officials said that in the end, the district would be leaner and more modern and better able to serve students. The plan stemmed from a $1 million study the school system commissioned in 2011 that documented the needs of every school building in the city.

In that study, the Jacobs Project Management Co. concluded it would be more cost-effective to renovate Northwestern. But the district decided that other factors — including a projected 24 percent utilization rate of space in the school and low student achievement data — made the school a candidate for closure.

In its lawsuit, the alumni association alleges that assessment was based on outdated information and failed to take into account roughly $1 million in renovations the school was slated to undergo months after the Jacobs study was done. The school received several upgrades, such as new bleachers and tennis courts, in the summer of 2012.

The Jacobs study identifies "wardrobe storage cabinets" as needing replacement, though there are no such cabinets in the school, according to the lawsuit. In addition, the report includes photos that show "weed growth/cracking asphalt paved play court" that were fixed as part of the renovations.

Forest Park High School would be the nearest school for Northwest Baltimore students, according to the lawsuit, but eight middle schools feed into Northwestern. The lawsuit argues that if the school were to close, there would be inadequate resources to serve those middle-school students.

"It is unclear what will happen to these students if Northwestern High School is closed," the lawsuit said, adding that "the significant harms clearly tip the balance of convenience in favor of granting an injunction until adequate data and analysis can be obtained and used."

According to the Jacobs report, Forest Park would cost $13 million to renovate and is under-capacity, so it could absorb area students.

Collins said she thinks it's unfair that students would have to travel farther to go to Forest Park, when Northwestern is bigger and has more resources to serve the school and community.

"The school system has a facilities department, so what were they doing all these years when we were paying them our taxpayer dollars?" she said. "They could spend a quarter-million dollars to upgrade an office at North Avenue, but they let our schools get to this condition."

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