Three of Baltimore's largest education foundations are questioning whether the city schools are equipped to handle an ambitious school closing plan proposed last week, noting concerns about such things as classroom space and bus routes.
The plan involves moving more than 5,300 students from five school buildings to 19 other schools in August.
Representatives of the Abell Foundation, the Fund for Educational Excellence and the Open Society Institute met with schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland late last week and urged her to delay some of the closings.
The foundations say they are especially worried about the logistics of closing the Southwestern High School complex by summer.
School officials acknowledge that they might be rushing things a bit, saying they need to determine whether they've taken on more than they can handle before the school board votes on the plan March 28.
Asked about the community concern that the system won't be able to prepare buildings in time to receive the displaced students, schools Chief Operating Officer Eric Letsinger replied, "We all have that concern."
"We feel like we can probably pull this off," he said, adding that he will ask the school board to scale back if he and his staff determine that they have taken on too much. "We're not going to get ourselves in a situation where we can't pull off what we need to."
The foundation representatives and Letsinger served on the committee that developed the school closings plan. A clear majority of the approximately 50 committee members supported the plan; the foundation representatives were among those who voted against it.
In coming weeks, the school system can scale back on closings for next school year. But it can no longer add to the plan and comply with state rules requiring adequate public notice of possible school closings and public hearings before a school board vote.
The city school board has committed itself to reducing its operating space by 15 percent, or 2.7 million square feet, within three years because of declining enrollment and deteriorating buildings.
The proposal before the school board would achieve nearly half of that goal by August, cutting 7 percent of operating space, or 1.3 million square feet. The closings would save the school system $14 million that it would use for capital improvements at the schools receiving the displaced students.
Pressure from state
School system officials say they are under intense pressure from the state to close schools quickly. The state has threatened to withhold school construction money unless the system shows significant progress toward operating more efficiently. The system has space for 125,000 students, but 85,000 are enrolled.
Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, is among those who wonder why the bulk of the school closings can't wait until next year and the year after.
"With an issue of this magnitude, we need more time," Hamilton said.
The most serious concerns center on the proposed closing of the Southwestern complex, which houses four small high schools. Three would move into extra space in middle school buildings, and one would displace an alternative school.
Preparing buildings to receive displaced students involves detailed logistical planning that includes plotting bus routes, making sure there are enough desks and lockers, and assigning the correct number of teachers to the schools.
Parking and traffic issues must be contended with, and in readying middle school buildings for high school students, officials must make sure that they have adequate science labs, computer labs, performing arts space and athletic fields.
Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute, said she wants to see the process slowed down "so we make sure we don't lose any kids in the process. ... If it seems very haphazard and it's not executed well, what happens in Baltimore is, the kids drop out."
Bonnie Legro, the Abell Foundation's education program officer, said she doesn't see why the Southwestern complex couldn't close over two years, with two schools moving this year and two schools moving next year.
Michael Carter, chairman of the committee that proposed the plan, said the state won't give the system credit for partial closing of the complex in determining its square-footage reduction. If the plan didn't call for closing all of Southwestern this summer, it would have needed to propose closing another sprawling high school campus, he said.
The three foundations that complained to Copeland are major participants in the city's effort to break up its large high schools into smaller, more personalized ones. As a result of that effort, the city is starting to let eighth-graders decide which high schools they want to attend.
Milli Pierce, president and executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, said current eighth-graders have chosen the high schools they want to attend. She said some might have chosen differently had they known about the moves because of factors such as the distance between the schools and their homes.
The plan involves moving the Academy for College and Career Exploration from the Samuel L. Banks High School complex in Northeast Baltimore to Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden, several miles away.
Pierce said determining which schools to close benefited from a lot of public input, but added, "I still don't think it was based on good, sound academic practice. It was based on how could we get rid of [at least] 5 percent of the space this year."
The state has never specified the amount of space the system must cut and by when to demonstrate that it is making progress toward operating efficiently.
In tentatively approving $18 million in construction money for next school year, a state committee wrote that it "reserves right to withdraw approval in April 2006 if ... a substantial number of schools are not recommended for closure."
David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program, said he can't specify how many schools must close.
"It's going to depend on the specific nature of the schools being proposed," he said. "What we're after here is savings."
Closing a smaller number of buildings that are energy-inefficient and require a lot of routine maintenance might save as much as closing more buildings in better condition, he said. He called the system's current plan "very substantial."
The plan grew out of 58 public meetings, during which eight regional committees and a ninth committee studying the city's high schools gathered testimony and distributed surveys.
Those committees submitted proposals to a citywide committee, which developed the final recommendations for this year's planned closings and plans for long-term construction, renovations and closings.
That long-term plan involves closing 16 buildings over the next three years and documents $2.7 billion in construction and renovation needs.
Several middle schools and the Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School for student mothers are among those that would cease to exist in coming years when other schools move into their buildings. Thousands of middle school pupils would be diverted to schools serving prekindergarten through eighth grade.