By Emma Brown,
|DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson|
A federal judge has dismissed most of a lawsuit that sought to stop the closure of 15 D.C public schools but is allowing several of the plaintiffs’ civil rights claims to move forward.
|Judge James Boasberg|
“In the end, Plaintiffs have failed to allege facts that would sustain the majority of their counts,” Judge James E. Boasberg wrote in an opinion Thursday. “Some issues at the heart of this case, however, remain open.”
Activists with the community group Empower D.C. filed the lawsuit in March in an effort to stop 13 of the schools from being closed in June. They argued that the school closures violated a number of local and federal laws, including civil rights provisions. The closures disproportionately affected black, Hispanic and disabled children, they argued.
Boasberg declined that initial request to block the closures, ruling in a strongly worded opinion that the activists had “no likelihood of ultimate success on the merits” of their complaint. They had showed no evidence, he said, that Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) had intended to discriminate.
In Thursday’s opinion, Boasberg appeared no less skeptical of the activists’ position, saying that their civil-rights arguments “may ultimately be too slender a reed” on which to hang their case. But under the law, he said, they deserve time to gather and present information before he issues a final ruling.
“That said, however, the Court is not in the business of sanctioning a fishing expedition into decades of [school system] files,” Boasberg wrote. “Only targeted discovery will garner approval.”
Empower D.C. activists said they were pleased with the ruling. “We’re happy that we can still litigate on some of the counts around discrimination,” said Daniel del Pielago, an organizer for the group. “We’re still in the game.”
A spokesman for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, whose lawyers are representing Henderson and Gray in the case, declined to comment. D.C. officials have argued that they needed to close schools with low enrollment to use resources more efficiently and improve education across the city.
DCPS consolidation and reorganization plan
Chancellor Kaya Henderson names 15 D.C. schools on closure list
By Emma Brown,
More than one in 10 D.C. public schools will close as part of a plan Chancellor Kaya Henderson put forth Thursday, a retrenchment amid budget pressures, low enrollment and growing competition from public charter schools.
Henderson will shutter 15 schools, affecting more than 2,400 students and more than 540 employees. Closing half-empty schools will allow her to use resources more efficiently, she said, redirecting dollars from administration and maintenance to teaching and learning.
The move is another benchmark in the fundamental remaking of public education in the District, where the school system has lost more than 100,000 students since its peak enrollment in the 1960s.
City leaders have been faced with underenrollment for years, but the situation has become more pronounced with the rapid growth of charter schools since the mid-1990s. Funded with taxpayer dollars but operated independently of the school system, charters now enroll more than 40 percent of the city’s students, putting Washington at the leading edge of a national movement toward charters.
“We can’t ignore the fact that we as a city have embraced school choice,” Henderson told D.C. Council members during a briefing Thursday. “If we proliferate charter schools, we have to know that is going to have an impact.”
Five years ago, then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee accelerated the downsizing of the D.C. school system when she moved quickly to close 23 schools, igniting angry protest and long-lasting political backlash while spurring an exodus of students to the city’s charters.
Henderson’s proposed closures also triggered opposition, but she is widely seen to have handled community relations more deftly than her predecessor, sponsoring a series of public meetings throughout the city and inviting parents and activists to help refine the closure plan.
That feedback persuaded the chancellor to remove five schools from her original closure list, including Garrison Elementary and Francis-Stevens Education Campus, two Northwest Washington schools in relatively affluent neighborhoods. Parents at both schools mounted vigorous campaigns against closure.
Henderson cited parents’ willingness to help recruit new students and demographic data showing that Northwest neighborhoods, particularly around Garrison, are growing faster than officials previously understood. Francis-Stevens will fill its extra space by serving as a second campus for the School Without Walls, a selective high school nearby.
Faced with criticism that she hadn’t given equal consideration to parental concerns and ideas emerging from less-privileged parts of the city, Henderson said that many of the proposals she received included requests for extra investments of millions of dollars.
“Lots of folks came up with plans. Some we were able to move with, others we were not able to,” Henderson said. “Leadership is about making hard decisions.”
Smothers Elementary in Northeast also will stay open, as will Malcolm X Elementary in Southeast, which will be operated in partnership with a “high-performing charter school” that Henderson declined to identify. Southeast’s Johnson Middle School will stay open because school officials say they think that moving the students to other schools filled with teenagers from rival neighborhoods could cause safety concerns.
All 15 schools marked for closure are east of Rock Creek Park, many of them east of the Anacostia River in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and all had below-average test scores. They include the first high school to close in recent memory — Spingarn Senior High in Northeast — and Kenilworth Elementary, in the middle of a neighborhood that last month won a $25 million grant to strengthen local education and other services.
Thirteen of the schools will close at the end of this academic year, with the remaining two — Sharpe Health and Mamie D. Lee, schools for students with disabilities — to close in 2014.
On Thursday, Henderson for the first time offered an estimate of money to be saved through the closures: $19.5 million in staffing costs. Approximately $11 million will be needed for transition costs, Henderson said, resulting in a net savings of $8.5 million.
The last round of closures, in 2008, cost millions more than initially reported, according to an audit released in August. Henderson said the school system is more confident in its savings estimates now.
The savings will be plowed back into schools to improve programming, including into libraries and arts and foreign language offerings, Henderson said, adding that the public will get a detailed view when school-by-school budgets are released in the coming months.
About 140 staff positions will be lost, but given normal attrition through resignations and retirements, Henderson said, “we actually feel like the loss will be minimal.” She said she does not expect any teacher evaluated “effective” to be out of a job.
The chancellor said she does not anticipate releasing any buildings from the D.C. Public Schools inventory. She said she needs to keep control of the facilities so they can be reopened as enrollment rebounds.
That news was maddening for charter school advocates, who often struggle to find suitable and affordable D.C. real estate. City law requires that surplus public school buildings be made available to charter schools.
“The mayor is making a mistake,” said Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. “What we have here, it’s about defending DCPS from the popularity of the charter schools, and it has nothing to do with getting more kids into quality schools. Nothing.”
Henderson said her staff has plans for reusing some buildings, such as Spingarn, which will become a vocational education campus focused on transportation careers. But officials are still working on plans for many of the buildings.
The prospect of closures triggered intense debate in recent months about the future of the city school system, including at community meetings and two D.C. Council hearings that together lasted more than 14 hours.
Some parents, activists and politicians worry that shutting the schools will drive families into the city’s charter schools, which could lead to declining enrollment and further closures in the traditional school system. After the 2008 closures, thousands of children left the system for charter schools, according to a study by three think tanks.
The school system now enrolls about 46,000 students in 123 schools.
“We cannot repeat what happened with the last closures,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “DCPS has got to be much more aggressive than it was three years ago in retaining students and recruiting students.”
D.C. Council members will have a chance to quiz Henderson about her school closure plan Wednesday at the first hearing of the newly constituted education committee, which is led by David A. Catania (I-At Large).
Across the city Thursday afternoon, schools that had been slated to close cleaved into two groups: those that were spared, and those were not.
“My kids like this school, and I don’t want to see them start over,” said Raheem Bates, 24, the father of two Kenilworth students.
A few miles away, Shannon Smith prepared for a protest at the chancellor’s home. Her two grandchildren attend Ferebee-Hope Elementary, which will close over the objections of parents and staff. “I don’t know why they would want to close this school,” said Smith, who called the move “ridiculous.”
But across town at Garrison, relieved parents hugged each other and high-fived their kids. Kierra McPherson, 23 wiped away tears as she picked up her preschool son. McPherson graduated from Garrison, as did her mother and cousin.
“It’s a tradition,” McPherson said. “This is my school. We got our school back.”
James Arkin and Alex Kane Rudansky contributed to this report.