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Schools Across U.S. Grapple With Closures

In one of the largest school closures ever seen in the U.S., the Kansas City, Mo., school board approved a plan Wednesday that will shutter 26 of the district's 61 schools.

Demonstrators carry signs as they march to Oakland City Hall during a national day of action against school funding cuts and tuition increases March 4, 2010 in Oakland, California.
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Above: Demonstrators carry signs as they march to Oakland City Hall during a national day of action against school funding cuts and tuition increases March 4, 2010 in Oakland, California.

Kansas City's action may have been drastic, but it's not unique. On Tuesday, Cleveland's school board approved a plan to close or move 16 schools. Detroit, which closed 29 schools before the term began last fall, is considering shutting more.

All over the country, many school districts are facing declines in both revenue and enrollment. As a result, the number of districts considering school closures this year has doubled — and is expected to double again next year.

"Right now, the economy is expediting school closures," says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "As districts are hard-pressed to meet their budgets, they're looking for everything they can cut."

Shutting The Doors

School districts are facing particularly strong budget pressures just now because their main source of revenue — property taxes — is in decline owing to the foreclosure crisis. Housing values have come down about 10 percent since 2007. And things aren't expected to get better on that front anytime soon, with the commercial real estate market beginning to wobble.

In addition, many states are cutting aid to education. Last year's federal stimulus package included $48 billion for education, but much of that money was used to make up for cuts in state spending. And the stimulus money runs out next year.

As a result, school districts are cutting back. Most districts are laying off teachers and other workers, and many are shrinking or eliminating funding for programs such as arts and athletics.

Others are considering what might be the most drastic step, closing facilities altogether. According to a survey conducted last fall by the school administrators association, 6 percent of districts closed or consolidated schools for the current school year, which doubled the number from the previous year. Their ranks are expected to grow to 11 percent for the 2010-11 school year.

"As bad as things are now, we see they're going to get worse next year," says Domenech, the association's director. "But it's the following year which is really going to be hard."

Living Beyond Their Means

John Covington, the superintendent of schools in Kansas City, said that the school closures were a necessary step to deal with a $50 million budget shortfall. He has blamed his predecessors for failing to make cuts as the district steadily lost enrollment to charter and private schools and population loss.

Under his plan, the district will shed about 700 jobs, including those of 285 teachers. The district also intends to sell its downtown headquarters building.

At their peak during the 1960s, Kansas City public schools educated 75,000 students. By 2000, that number was down to 35,000. It has dropped in half again, to 17,400. On any given day, many of the district's 61 schools are operating at 40 percent to 60 percent of their intended capacity.

Kansas City will now be operating the smallest number of schools since 1889, according to the Kansas City Star. Enrollment back then was about the same as it is today.

'People Love Their Schools'

School closures are the ultimate anti-NIMBY issue. Three years ago, Maine Gov. John Baldacci proposed cutting the number of school districts in his state from 290 to 26. The state still has some 200 districts, with arguments cropping up whenever districts or individual schools are put on the chopping block.

Just this week, the South Portland school board delayed its decision on a plan put forward by the superintendent to merge two middle schools after the federal stimulus dollars run out.

"The funny thing is, some [communities] are very quiet, but the minute you say you're going to close their schools, you hear from them," says Mary Louise Bewley, director of school and community relations for the Indianapolis Public Schools, which has shut 14 of its 79 schools over the past two years. "It's always fraught with emotion, because people love their schools."

The DeKalb County School System, in suburban Atlanta, is considering a proposal to close at least four and perhaps as many as a dozen of its 147 schools. The district is anticipating a budget shortfall of $88 million, which could easily grow.

Residents are upset, particularly because the schools listed so far as targets for elimination are in the southern part of the county, which is poor and heavily African-American. Hundreds of angry parents filled a school cafeteria Tuesday to protest the plan at a meeting of the school system's Citizens Planning Task Force.

But many of DeKalb's schools enroll fewer than 450 students, which is a threshold level for state funding. "It costs more to operate schools with very low enrollment, and the state formula for funding school construction penalizes systems which have very large numbers of vacant seats," says Tom Bowen, who chairs the DeKalb school board.

"Closing schools actually increases the ability for the school system to get state construction dollars."

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