Published Online: March 18, 2010

More Than 25 Percent of Detroit Schools Slated to Close

Doors are expected to shut on more than a quarter of Detroit's 172 public schools in June as the district fights through steadily declining enrollment and a budget deficit of more than $219 million, an emergency financial manager said Wednesday.

Three aging, traditional and underpopulated high schools would be among the 44 closures. Another six schools are to be closed in June 2011, followed by seven more a year later, emergency financial manager Robert Bobb said.

Detroit already closed 29 schools before the start of classes last fall and shuttered 35 buildings about three years ago. Parents like Jena Williams, 41, call it a worrisome trend. Her 5-year-old daughter's school is on the June list.

"I am not happy about it, but the population of the city is shrinking and the people who have the means are moving out," Williams said after picking up her daughter, Payton, from Bunche Elementary on Detroit's east side.

The closures are part of a $1 billion, five-year plan to downsize a struggling district also is looking to improve education, test scores and student safety in a city whose population has declined with each passing decade. The 2010 U.S. Census is expected to show that far fewer than 900,000 people now live in Detroit.

"You've got to give DPS a chance. You've got to give Detroit a chance. I'm trying to," said Williams, an unemployed General Motors Co. contract worker.

District data shows full-time, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment has decreased from about 164,500 in 2002-03 to 87,700 for the current school year. Enrollment is projected to dip to 56,500 in 2014-15.

More than half the classroom seats in dozens of buildings are empty.

"This creates a leaner, smarter DPS by taking into account citywide demographic trends," Bobb said. "We're still going to grow the district. We're going to do it realistically."

Other cities face similar woes. The Kansas City, Mo., school district announced plans last week to shut down nearly half its schools by the start of classes in the fall. DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta is considering closing 12 schools over the next two years to help trim an anticipated $88 million deficit, while St. Louis public schools spokeswoman Julie Linder said the superintendent there has indicated "everything is on the table" to stem a projected $57.5 million shortfall.

Several community meetings will be held in Detroit before final decisions are made about the schools' fates in late April. A support building also is slated to close this summer. Many buildings eventually will be demolished, while others may be sold.

Some new and renovated schools will house pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. Others will educate students starting in pre-kindergarten through high school. But new building configurations will ensure younger students don't encounter older students, Bobb said.

Thousands of students will be forced to transfer to open schools, and that's expected to anger parents. But Bobb hopes to convince them the closures, along with a recently released five-year plan that calls for more rigorous academics, is best for the district.

"Every school should be an excellence school," he said.

But parent LaShawn Smith said she considers Bunche such a school; she drives her three children across town to get there.

"He's closing too many schools," Smith said. "There are going to be too many kids in classes now at the remaining schools."

The facilities plan will be implemented in two phases. The first is funded by a voter-approved bond sale of $500.5 million. The second calls for voter approval on a second $500 million bond sale "assuming citizens take an active role in a new bond measure in the future," Bobb said.

It's not known if Bobb will be around for the start of the plan's second phase. He was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm last March to straighten out the district's finances. His contract ends in March 2011.

Associated Press Writer Corey Williams wrote this story. Associated Press Writer Heather Hollingsworth contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.

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