The Baltimore City school board voted Tuesday night to close three public schools during summer 2023, citing low enrollment numbers and deteriorating buildings, despite calls from community members to keep them open.
The vote means the school system will close Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary on Eutaw Place in West Baltimore, Steuart Hill Academic Academy in Union Square in the Central Southwest area of the city and New Era Academy, a high school in South Baltimore, after the 2022-23 academic year. The only board member to oppose all three closures was Durryle Brooks.
The school board voted unanimously to develop a strategic plan that will look at long-term enrollment and school closures.
A fourth school that was being considered for closure, Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, will remain open, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said.
“This is the only school where the facility issue is not as severe, but the enrollment challenge is,” Santelises said. “There is a call to action. To our partners and community leaders, we need you to deliver. You committed to doing a campaign to increase enrollment, so I am offering you the opportunity to do so.”
The school system announced a proposal to close the schools in November and was scheduled to vote in early January. The board postponed the vote for two weeks until Tuesday night.
More than 80 community members joined the virtual school board meeting, with about a dozen people speaking out, begging board members to keep the schools open and delay the vote for two years.
Elizabeth Reichelt, a co-chair at BUILD, an interfaith community group in Baltimore, said she felt that school officials didn’t present enough facts to justify the closures.
“Why are we talking about permanently losing schools now when students, family and staff are reeling from the trauma of the pandemic?” she asked. “Closing the schools now will just serve as a further setback.”
China Boak Terrell, CEO of American Communities Trust, which works to bring investment to low-income, urban neighborhoods while boosting families there, said closing the schools and creating acres of vacant space and broken glass would be devastating for families and children.
“What we need is a paradigm shift and we need a new right size for Black neighborhoods where populations may have shrunk,” she said. “Because it really matters to us that neighborhood schools continue to be the foundation of growth.”
The schools targeted to close all have declined in enrollment over the past five years and need major repairs, and the city says it has run out of funding to fix them.
For example, Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary needs nearly $20 million in repairs — about half the value of the building — to fix cracked walls that allow water to enter, and pay for new windows and heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, officials said.
While officials acknowledged that the building is safe for the current 229 students, they said it is less than a mile away from three other elementary schools that are in better condition and have the ability to serve more kids.
School board members said the decision was difficult given the school’s exemplary academic program.
“This is hard. It’s very hard,” said Linda M. Chinnia, chair of the Board of School Commissioners. “But we either deal with it now or we’re going to still have to deal with it two or three years down the road.”
The Evening Sun
With Steuart Hill Academic Academy, officials said that a stream runs under the building, causing the school to periodically flood. The school also needs a new roof, chimney and windows.
Officials said it would cost about $16 million to upgrade New Era Academy in South Baltimore. The school’s HVAC system runs on steam and is corroding, costing thousands of dollars a year on upkeep. The building also does not have air conditioning.
“Basically, duct tape is holding it together,” said Cynthia Smith, the city schools’ director of facility design and construction. “We’re worried about how long we can maintain the heating system in the building. We don’t have a long timeline for when we think that students can be in the building, and it’s uncomfortable and very hot.”
Brooks, who voted no to close all three schools, said multiple times that he felt the community needed more time to share its input.
“In the absence of having a clearly articulated timeline that is transparent so that the public has the appropriate amount of time to engage, it just does not feel to me that that is the way in which we operate with integrity and transparency, especially in our roles as school board commissioners,” Brooks said.
The school closing proposal is part of an attempt to make the schools operate more efficiently by closing those with low enrollments as the city’s population and public school enrollment have shrunk over the decades.
In the past decade, the system has closed dozens of schools while investing about $1 billion in 28 new or completely renovated schools, including Patterson High School, Frederick Elementary School and Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School.