Detroit has been losing students faster than any other urban school district in the nation. Now it is poised to shrink even more, under a plan announced this month to shut down 51 schools by the middle of 2008.
With 54,000 empty seats and 642 vacant classrooms in a portfolio of 232 buildings, officials of the Detroit school district say they can no longer avoid the painful and politically vexing process of closing schools.
The district has been struggling to whittle down a $200 million budget shortfall carried over from the 2004-05 school year that triggered a state-imposed, five-year deficit-reduction plan. The district’s budget is $1.4 billion.
District leaders estimate that shuttering 51 buildings and shifting roughly 20,000 students to other campuses would ultimately save $19 million a year. Most of the closings would happen at the end of this school year.
“Our survival depends on it,” said Jimmy Womack, the president of the school board. “We have got to move ahead aggressively on this.”
A declining city population and competition from charter schools and neighboring districts has contributed to Detroit’s steep enrollment declines for the past several years. This school year, enrollment has fallen to 116,000, down from 128,000 in the 2005-06 academic year.
But closing schools in Detroit has been difficult. Community resistance last year prompted the school board to reverse its decision to shut down seven schools; the panel ended up approving only five closures.
The plan for many more closings will be steered by Superintendent William F. Coleman III, who is competing with two outside finalists to hold on to his job.
Mr. Womack said the school board would hold several public hearings to allow for a full airing of the proposal. Still, he predicts, the debate will be tough and emotionally charged.
The proposal will need at least six votes from the 11-member board to pass, Mr. Womack said.
“That’s why we’re going to make the board vote the whole thing either up or down,” Mr. Womack said. “There won’t be any piecemeal business.”
Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt used that same strategy in 2005, when he persuaded a majority of the board members there to approve closing or relocating dozens of schools.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week