School District administrators and the School Reform Commission have wisely recognized a problem they can't afford to put off dealing with any longer – too many buildings.
Since the late 1990s, 70 new charter schools have been added to the landscape, as well as a number of new, small high schools. Only a handful of District schools have been closed. With the school-age population declining, many of the system's aging buildings have been largely depopulated. Overall, one-third of the city's classroom space is unused, according to the latest study.
Though there may be some quibbles with the new estimate of 70,000 empty seats, the conclusion that the District must move to get rid of its excess capacity is indisputable. There could be major savings if the District was not dealing with the fixed costs of operating so many buildings. The District is overwhelmed by this vast and deteriorating infrastructure and needs to right-size in order to have any chance of making its buildings suitable environments for learning.
The District's facilities planning process – informing the public that downsizing is inevitable – absolutely needs to happen. The undertaking is massive and politically challenging, but cannot be put off. Conducting a comprehensive and citywide process also makes sense. When the District has tried to close a single school here or there, those communities feel arbitrarily targeted. This problem involves the whole city, and the District has recognized that extensive community involvement is needed.
But how they have conducted that engagement process is alarming. A change in course is needed. Despite the promise of transparency, the District has given only vague answers to the most basic questions: What data about schools should we be looking at? How will the District weigh different factors? When will the public hear specific proposals for closings and consolidations? What opportunities will there be to respond to those proposals? By when must decisions be made? Are there any targets for seat reductions or cost savings? What happens to buildings that are closed?
When the Notebook tried getting updated capacity numbers for specific schools and costs for renovating them, it was as if we had asked for state secrets. At press time, the District still had not said exactly when it will release those numbers. As to whether schools are going to have to be closed, the District's guarded response has been "Possibly."
It's time to level with the public. Put all the information out there. Get some preliminary proposals on the table. Don't keep the public guessing.
No community is going to be happy to see its school closed, and there's already a lot of mistrust. But the only way to turn that around is with openness.