Barras: DCPS gives parent the bum's rush

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Parents and advocates calling for a moratorium on school closings are not obstructionists. They have legitimate concerns about DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's proposal to shutter or consolidate 20 facilities.

Why would the city proceed without first reviewing an independent evaluation of mayoral control of public education expected next year? Henderson finally has agreed to propose changes to school boundaries that have not been altered for decades. Those adjustments won't come until June 2013 and could affect building use. Why the bum's rush?

"A lot of other work has not been done, that's our big concern," said Daniel del Pielago, with the nonprofit Empower DC that has been working with parents affected by the closings. Several testified Thursday at the first of two public hearings before the D.C. Council.

"I don't think you wait," council Chairman Phil Mendelson told me prior to the hearing. He said closing underused buildings "makes sense" but noted during previous closures one or two schools came off the list after public hearings.

"I wouldn't be surprised if something like that happened this time," continued Mendelson, cautioning the council has no "formal approval role."

But, they should rigorously examine Henderson's plan, which advocates said lacks sufficient details.

Jeff Smith, a parent with DC Voice, a nonprofit education advocacy group, said they would like more specifics about the benefits that would accrue to consolidated schools. "Those should be spelled out." Then, there is the matter of "costs, savings and layoffs" of personnel. "The mayor should not come in moving people out of their school homes without being required to provide detailed information."

Where particulars have been offered, they are confusing. Henderson has used a projected decline from 2012 to 2015 in school-age children to justify the closings, which begin with the 2013-2014 school year. But her data also indicate a correlating population uptick citywide beginning in 2015 through 2020.

Despite 64 percent occupancy, Garrison Elementary School is on the closure list. It and Francis-Stevens were identified by former Chancellor Michelle Rhee as growth schools. "Francis-Stevens can also become a school that has a lot of demand, if we do things right," Rhee told me in 2010.

Somebody dropped the ball. So parents are getting jerked around. Francis-Stevens initially was a middle school. Under Rhee, it became pre-K through 8th grade. Now, Henderson wants to make it a satellite high school.

That sound you hear is parents racing to the nearest charter school, where viable education programs are created with populations less than 300. Achievement Preparatory Academy in Ward 8 has only 202 students. DC Prep-Edgewood Middle in Ward 5 -- the city's top-rated charter -- serves 260, according to Public Charter School Board documents.

Henderson has said money is being spent on buildings and staffing -- not on classrooms. Is that a problem related to leadership priorities or financial pressures? Further, how much is DCPS spending on central administration? And should the consistent reduction in DCPS' portfolio -- students and buildings -- mean a correlating reduction in salaries, including Henderson's?

I'm just asking.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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