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Controversy, Cutbacks Mark Rocky Year in D.C.

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Parents, students, and teachers in the District of Columbia have endured a school year rife with controversy, cutbacks, and dissension, and recent announcements of school closures brought a new wave of protests.

Superintendent Franklin L. Smith said last month that closing seven Washington schools was vital to bringing the financially troubled district's budget under control. The school board voted May 17 to close two adult-education centers, two high schools, two junior highs, and an arts-education center.

Mr. Smith's announcement stemmed from a mandate by the control board created last year by Congress to oversee the capital city's finances. The financial control board gave the schools until Sept. 30 to eliminate 1,400 jobs.

Anthony A. Williams, the city's chief financial officer, has said the school board is spending at a level that could run as much as $25 million over its roughly $500 million budget.

The decision to close schools brought angry protests from residents in the neighborhoods that will be affected. But Mr. Smith has said the cuts are necessary.

"It is far more efficient to get a smaller number of schools in top shape than to maintain a fleet of aging, half-empty schools sinking under their own weight," Mr. Smith wrote in a recent opinion article in The Washington Post.

Closing the schools and consolidating others was the best alternative, Mr. Smith said, and would rid the 80,000-student district of its most rundown school buildings. The decision to close schools, he said, could not be based on enrollment alone.

"This is because curricula and community needs require us to use space differently to create more computer labs, parenting centers, and special education classrooms," he wrote.

Seniority Debate

The dispute with residents over school closings closely followed a row between school district officials and the Washington Teachers' Union over possible layoffs.

The school board voted May 15 to eliminate seniority as the sole criterion in deciding which teachers would keep or lose their jobs, as officials prepared to lay off 426 teachers this year to meet the mandate from the financial-control board.

Seniority was formerly the main factor used in deciding who would stay, but the May vote means it will now have the same weight as other criteria, such as effectiveness in the classroom and the needs of individual schools.

James O. Baxter, the legislative representative of the 5,500-member teachers' union, said in a recent interview that the decision to change the criteria was yet another sign of a poorly managed school district.

"This is something that we should think of as an invidious attempt to break down the core of teaching," he said. "What [the school board] is targeting is age, and that should not be a factor."

Supporters and school board members have said that the change was enacted to retain newer teachers with fresher ideas.

But union officials say it is the teachers who are bearing the brunt of the system's financial woes. "The teachers haven't had a raise in four years," Mr. Baxter said.

The recent strife followed months of budget turmoil in the school district and the city government as a whole. The District of Columbia's budget, which requires approval from Congress, was held up for about six months amid debate over a House plan to provide vouchers to low-income students that could be used to pay tuition at private schools.

The plan stalled a $5 billion spending bill, but eventually died after facing strong opposition in the Senate. (See Education Week, March 6, 1996.)

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