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Bleak budgets force schools to consider closure

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 | 3:25 p.m. CDT; updated 4:06 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 23, 2010

KANSAS CITY — In a neighborhood dotted with boarded up homes, trash and gang graffiti, McCoy Elementary has been an oasis.

Now that the 94-year-old school is closing, residents are fearful that the neighborhood could become even worse, attracting drug dealers and vandals when the children are gone. McCoy is among the roughly half of Kansas City district schools expected to shut down before class resumes next fall, part of a wave of school closures across the country.

"When it does close, it's going to get bad around here," said Virginia Stanley, standing outside her home with her husband, her 22-year-old granddaughter and her two young great-grandchildren, who live with them.

Superintendents of struggling districts are winning praise for confronting budget woes by shuttering half-empty and underperforming schools, a move often blocked by local politics in the past. In many cases, the schools have been declining for years, but were never closed because residents and local advocacy groups fought to keep them. Now school leaders have an argument that trumps any parent outrage: The struggling economy makes these schools a luxury that districts can no longer afford.

About 6 percent of districts closed or consolidated schools this year, compared to about 3 percent in 2008-09, according to a survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators. About 11 percent are expected to consider similar moves in 2010-11.

"It's going to continue because we don't see any short-term turnaround in the economy that would improve the situation for schools," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Kansas City's move earlier this month created waves because of how many of its schools will close. Detroit followed suit last week by moving to close nearly a quarter of its schools in a desperate bid to erase a $219 million budget deficit.

Before the Kansas City vote, civic leaders placed a full-page ad in the Kansas City Star to show support for the plan. Meanwhile, budget-balancing efforts in Detroit have won praise from Mayor Dave Bing and various parents' rights groups.

But residents in both cities say the cost-cutting has a price, robbing residents of a community resource, a meeting space for civic groups and a point of pride in otherwise blighted neighborhoods.

Kansas City residents complain that schools closed in years past have sat vacant, attracting vagrants. This time around, officials have vowed to do better finding suitable uses for closed buildings, but residents are wary.

Already, McCoy Elementary attracts drug users in the summer when classes aren't in session, Stanley's husband, James, said.

"Your property, I don't think it's going to be worth anything when you close the school," he said.

Closing schools is an unpopular business. Most have prominent local alumni to battle closures, along with sympathetic teachers, parents and children to offer heartfelt pleas for survival. Often, many districts put it off even though operating underused buildings soaks up money that could be spent on teachers and other vital resources.

After years of declining enrollment and contentious debate, Seattle closed schools in 2006 and 2009 — fewer than a dozen each time. The debates and parent protests were so raucous that security officers escorted parents from school board meetings after the booing or shouting got too loud. District leaders said the plans would strengthen academics at remaining buildings and give students in some neighborhoods better access to special programs.

Recent trends are overwhelming such politics, forcing the hands of reluctant school boards or empowering reform-minded superintendents. The recession has sapped district budgets of any excess money. Charter schools are attracting children away from traditional school buildings. And new national reform efforts encourage districts to close or restructure low-performing schools to qualify for federal grants.

"One consequence of some of those reforms is that more conventional, traditional public schools will have to close," said Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the libertarian-leaning Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

In Detroit, an emergency financial manager has been brought in to straighten out the district's ailing finances. Meanwhile, Kansas City administrators wanted closures to avoid using up what little is left of the $2 billion it received as part of a groundbreaking desegregation case.

In suburban Atlanta, the DeKalb County school district is looking at closing as many as 12 schools over the next two years to help close an anticipated $88 million deficit.

In New York, 19 schools are expected to be closed for poor performance. The nation's largest school district has closed 91 schools since 2002, converting many to smaller schools or charters.

In the Milwaukee Public Schools, five or six schools are expected to close this year, spokeswoman Roseann St. Aubin said. The district already has closed about six schools each year since 2005 because of decreasing enrollment.

The moves are money-savers, but they're gut-wrenching propositions for communities.

In rapidly shrinking Detroit, times were already tough before Sherrard Elementary, a few miles north of downtown, closed in 2007. Vacant lots where homes were burned and torn down had started to spread, as did the number of abandoned houses.

But there was the laughter of children rising above the squalor until the school was shuttered by a district feverishly trying to save money.

"People watched out for the neighborhood because they were watching the kids," said 51-year-old Ray White. "The neighborhood is basically gone now, and I don't think there is any survival in this neighborhood."


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