Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso said Friday that he plans to close more than a dozen schools by 2014 in an effort to vacate underused and dilapidated buildings.
The schools chief would not specify how many or which schools would be affected but did say the scope of his plan "would dwarf what has been done in the past," referring to the underperforming schools he has ordered closed.
"This is an incredibly difficult conversation for communities that might be affected by this, because schools are considered sacred ground," he said. "But it's something we're going to have to do to run the schools better. We need to right-size the district to give kids the kind of education they deserve."
Any closures would require school board approval.
The new plan, still in the preliminary stage, is aimed at making the system more efficient. The school system's infrastructure was built for 190,000 students but now serves about 85,000, Alonso said. More than a quarter of the city's roughly 200 school buildings have 250 students or fewer.
The school system commissioned a $135,000 independent study earlier this year to document the specific needs of its buildings. The first draft of the independent report, due in November, will help guide the decisions about the number of schools that would close and which ones are the best candidates, Alonso said.
A report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland released last year said that the city school system needs an estimated $2.8 billion to address its deteriorating infrastructure.
Alonso said his plan is "about figuring out a way to do more with what we have" in consolidating space and resources.
Underperforming schools would also continue to be closed through the city's annual review process, called "Expanding Great Options." Since he arrived in 2007, Alonso has shuttered 13 schools that have fallen behind academically.
Alonso said the list of schools targeted for closure had not been made final, and the plan most likely wouldn't be implemented until the 2013-2014 school year, though he has begun pitching the idea to communities across the city. He said he would like to talk to residents about the plan for at least a year.
Alonso said that the closures could result in more resources, such as art programs, sports fields, bands and other academic and extracurricular activities that the system lacks because funds are spread thin. The system would also save on operational costs, Alonso said, that it can invest in upgrading more schools.
"When I go to the community to tell them the possibility of a school closing, I need to offer them the possibility of a great school. If we do that, then the city will be behind us," he said. "This goes hand in hand with modernizing buildings, because we're going to bring costs down and be able to give more kids the education they deserve."
It mirrors a situation the school system faced a decade ago, when the city school board decided to close nine neighborhood schools to address the loss of thousands of students and the half-empty buildings they left behind.
School officials estimated that they would save $108,000 per school in the first year. It was the first time since 1993 that the school board had closed buildings.
As a condition of providing more school construction money, state education officials had pressured the financially strapped city school system in 2001 to streamline its physical plant to conform to its enrollment.
The system's recommendations in 2001 also were based on a consultant's study that analyzed the capacity and condition of more than 180 schools in the district.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the education committee, said that the tumultuous process was necessary but that the city has adjusted to Alonso's vision to expand school choices for students. She is skeptical of further school closures.
"We closed schools, and then Alonso came and filled them back up," Clarke said. "And we did that to demonstrate our willingness to shrink the inventory to be worthy of school funding and improvements. But then we entered an expansion phase of charter schools and choice. I understand what he's saying, but I don't think we need to repeat ourselves."
Clarke, whose district includes a neighborhood elementary school with 222 students, said that residents prefer the small school and that it serves as an anchor of the community.
"It's a fearsome process to close a child's school, and we've worked very hard on performance, and we've worked very hard in having neighborhood schools that contribute to marketing the neighborhoods for homeownership," she said. "What we really need to have the dialogue about is raising this $2.8 billion, but I appreciate the dialogue that Dr. Alonso is inviting."
Alonso said that as the city campaigns to raise an estimated $2.8 billion to pay for building improvements, it will find itself in the same position that it was in 2001.
"It's going to create the credibility we're going to need if we're asking for billions of dollars for schools that are at 60 percent capacity," he said. Lawmakers "are going to rightfully ask questions about the efficiency of what we're doing."
Those who have advocated for facility improvements to city schools said that they also look forward to discussing the proposal.
"If the closing of schools will modernize the other schools, then it seems like he's going in the right direction, but I haven't seen the plan yet," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, whose National Action Network has joined other organizations in lobbying for school improvements.
"It's going to take us sitting down at the table, trying to figure out how to bring this about," Cheatham said. "All we know is that our children go to school in deplorable conditions, and we need to figure this out."
In advocating for President Barack Obama's jobs bill on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used Baltimore as an example of the critical infrastructure needs across the nation.
Under the bill, Maryland's schools would receive $315.8 million for infrastructure improvements, a significant portion of which would go to the city. Duncan highlighted Baltimore from a report published by the Council of Great City Schools, which showed that urban school systems face substantial, costly repairs to deteriorating buildings and classrooms.
"Our children only get one shot at a good education," Duncan said in a release. "They deserve better than crumbling school buildings and half-century-old science labs."
Neil Duke, president of the city school board, said he believes that Alonso's proposal is "a piece of welcoming news and very beneficial conversation."
"We're moving the discussion and the dialogue from the closure of schools because of underperformance to what our schools should look like as far as providing 21st-century facilities for our students," he said.
"Everything has to be on the table: the right size of our school populations within buildings, the building itself and whether it's suitable for academic use and extracurricular programming. We've got to build our stock."