They started out yesterday at 8:30 a.m. Eight Baltimore school board members, two administrators and a driver piled into a beige GMC Savana van.
The first stop was Highlandtown Middle, followed by Elmer A. Henderson Elementary, the Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School complex and Dr. Roland N. Patterson Academy, where they found an empty room in which to eat the lunch they brought with them. This was not, after all, a trip to gauge the quality of cafeteria food.
It was a trip for the board members to tour the school buildings that are slated to be shuttered this summer under a plan awaiting their final approval. That plan would displace more than 5,300 students from five buildings, part of a long-term strategy for the school system to operate more efficiently in the face of declining enrollment and deteriorating buildings.
By the time the van rolled up to the fifth and final building, the monstrous Southwestern High School complex, it was a quarter past 2 and the school board contingent was down to four. The group had just 40 minutes to see the four small high schools created by the breakup of Southwestern, even though their relocation is prompting the most community concern.
Southwestern was split into small schools in an attempt to create a more personal environment for students. The plan is to keep those schools intact, moving three to extra space in middle school buildings and one to replace an alternative school. Those moves will involve a laundry list of logistics, from plotting bus routes to outfitting science labs.
The board members stood in the Southwestern library and asked why many of the shelves had no books. They learned from the campus manager that the library was scheduled to be relocated to a different part of the building, only now it was being moved back.
They whisked through the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, to the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, where they were greeted by a sign that said, "Welcome to the Viven T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy."
"Is that how you spell 'Vivien'?" asked the school system's chief operating officer, Eric Letsinger, one of the two administrators on the tour.
"That's the artistic spelling," replied school board member George VanHook, who stood in the hallway shaking students' hands as they changed classes.
The grown-ups followed some students into a sweltering classroom, where Letsinger proclaimed it was "9,000 degrees." He said he gets more complaints about the malfunctioning heat at Southwestern than at any of the school system's other 171 buildings.
"Kids by this time are getting out of their clothes," Starletta Jackson, the Vivien T. Thomas principal, told him. It was late in the school day, and students had been baking in their classes for hours, shedding as many layers of clothing as decency would permit.
With little time left before some needed to be at late-afternoon business appointments, the group skipped over the Renaissance Academy and headed to Southwestern No. 412, the only one of the four Southwestern schools that would be phased out of existence after the move. Southwestern No. 412 would move to extra space in the Benjamin Franklin Junior High School building only until all current classes graduate and then it would shut its doors.
Principal Darline Lyles and an assistant principal talked to the board members about how the school wouldn't be able to keep its sports teams at the new location. Lyles also talked about an improved attendance rate among the school's 200 overage ninth-graders, from less than 50 percent to more than 70 percent, saying problems with the current building aren't getting in the way of the students' education.
Not their school
Board members said they'd heard the same story all day. People seemed to understand that some buildings have to close, that the state will cut off construction money if the school system - with space for 125,000 students and 85,000 students enrolled - doesn't start operating more efficiently. They seemed to understand that reducing wasted space will give the system more money, and political leverage, to renovate or rebuild the schools remaining. But they all wanted to see the closures somewhere else.
On the final leg of the Southwestern tour, school board Chairman Brian D. Morris, who has a reputation for being a flashy dresser, noted that the lockers were so small he couldn't fit his coat inside one - at least not without wrinkling it. On the bright side, board member Anirban Basu said, with lockers that size, no one can get shoved into them.
Heading back to the van, board member Douglas Kington reflected on the building conditions he saw throughout the day: classroom temperatures ranging "from 50 degrees to 90 degrees," electrical wires hanging from walls, missing fire exit signs and crumbling masonry.
Basu said he needs convincing that the Banks complex, which houses Samuel L. Banks High School and the Academy of College and Career Exploration, needs to close. "That school appears to have a very nice learning culture and the facility looks to be in pretty good shape to the naked eye," he said.
But Morris was quick to point out that, to keep receiving state construction money, "we're gonna have to displace 5,300 students, and we don't have a lot of options." Summarizing his impressions of the buildings he saw, he said, "The word that comes to mind is squalor."