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Published in Print: April 16, 2003, as Budget Woes Forcing Districts To Close Schools

Budget Woes Forcing Districts To Close Schools

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Severe state budget cuts and declining enrollment are forcing urban districts across the nation to consider what often is a last resort—closing schools.

From Detroit to Birmingham, Ala., city districts are opting to cut costs by shutting schools this summer. Along with teacher layoffs, closings are regarded as among the most emotionally charged options that districts can consider.

"It doesn't make any difference what reasons you give parents and the community residents [for closing schools]," explained Wayman B. Shiver Jr., the interim superintendent of the Birmingham public schools. "They don't seem to buy into it. But I have to look at the overall welfare of the system."

Detroit, which plans to close 16 schools, appears slated to shutter the most buildings among districts currently contemplating closures. Boston may shut down five schools, while the Birmingham and Oklahoma City school districts have already approved the closure of nine and seven schools, respectively.

Education officials in the districts have met with parents and other residents to plead their cases. Districts generally are targeting schools with declining student enrollments or alternative schools that serve relatively small numbers of students.

Yet, closing and consolidating schools doesn't necessarily add up to a windfall. Detroit is anticipating saving roughly $5 million, for example, while Birmingham hopes to save $4.5 million.

Among the costs involved in closing schools that offset savings are the relocation of furniture and security for the empty buildings, district officials say.

While the cost savings may seem modest when balanced against the public outcry that accompanies such decisions, many districts felt they had little choice.

The 165,000-student Detroit district is facing a $100 million shortfall in its $1.1 billion budget for fiscal 2004. Decreased state funding, reduced birth rates, and a rapid drop in student enrollment converged to create the Michigan system's fiscal woes.

Almost 11,000 fewer students attend Detroit schools today than in 1996, and the district anticipates a drop of 3,200 more students this fall.

"In tight economic times, if you're going to be efficient and effective, there's no way you should be running the same number of schools," said Kenneth S. Burnley, the chief executive officer of the Detroit schools.

While Detroit's $58 million in proposed cuts includes a $25 million reduction in district and school-based administrative staff, another round of cuts must be made to make up the remaining budget gap.

The school closings, which would affect about 6,400 students, will be finalized after a series of public meetings this month.

'Hardest Thing'

Explaining the context of the district's fiscal situation can be difficult, Mr. Burnley said. While school closings garner all the headlines, he said, the district is opening two new middle schools in the fall. And in the last four years, 14 new schools have replaced old schools that were deemed beyond repair.

"The hardest thing you do anywhere is close schools," Mr. Burnley said. "If you're building new schools in a declining population, people will ask, 'What schools are you closing?' "

Boston also is opening three new middle schools in the fall as enrollment in the 64,000-student district shifts and old buildings are replaced.

Facing a gaping $81 million deficit in its $619 million budget for fiscal 2004, the school system had to consider closing underenrolled schools, said Jonathan Palumbo, the district's spokesman. The district estimates it will save $5.8 million.

Oklahoma City sped up its timetable for closing seven schools that were slated to be shut down as part of its 10-year, $469 million construction and renovation plan, said Todd Stogner, the district's spokesman.

The 40,000-student district is facing a $10 million reduction in state aid for fiscal 2004 in a $190 million budget, after absorbing $20 million in cuts since October, he said. The school closures are expected to save the district about $1.9 million.

In Birmingham, years of reductions in state aid and a dip in student enrollment weren't addressed by reducing spending, Mr. Shiver, the interim superintendent, said. While some residents have charged that district officials are being insensitive, Mr. Shiver countered: "We're doing the best we can to recover."

Vol. 22, Issue 31, Page 5

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