School-Closing Plan Poses Test for D.C. Leaders

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Principal Joyce Thompson flips disdainfully through a report of her school's repair needs and low enrollment as if it were a foreclosure lien on her own home. Katie C. Lewis Elementary is among 16 schools the District of Columbia may close to save money.

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"You can't transport a loving and caring environment," said Ms. Thompson, whose students would be split between two nearby schools if the closings plan is approved. "You can't move children like you move troops."

Her comment is a thinly veiled criticism of the district's chief executive officer, retired Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., who was appointed by the city's federally created financial-control board in November with a mandate to whip the troubled school system into shape.

Like many of the district's educators and parents, Ms. Thompson says she has high hopes for Mr. Becton but wonders how well a gruff, three-star U.S. Army general with a buzz cut understands the places where children learn to read and write.

Mr. Becton argues that a school is just a building, and that instruction can be improved by moving innovative educational programs and good teachers to sounder structures.

"Rooms will simply be moved--lock, stock, and barrel," Mr. Becton said.

The school district's board of trustees--an appointed body that supplanted Washington's elected school board--is expected this month to vote on the proposed closings.

The issue may pose the toughest test yet for the new leaders who were installed in what amounted to a federal takeover of the school system. ("D.C. Schools Chief Takes Reins as Balance of Power Shifts," Dec. 4, 1996.)

Schools 'Falling Apart'

Mr. Becton said he resents the charge that he is insensitive to schools, noting that he headed Prairie View A&M University in Texas and was an active PTA member when his children attended District of Columbia schools.

"I'm the father of five grown children, 10 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren," he said in a recent interview. "I reject the idea that my military background doesn't permit me to understand. ... We're talking about closing buildings, buildings that are old and falling apart."

The district says it would need $2 billion to make necessary repairs at all 157 schools. The average school is more than 50 years old; many have leaky roofs, poor heating, and electrical problems.

The exodus of students to private and suburban schools has cut enrollment from 130,000 in 1968 to about 79,000 now.

But at public hearings on the proposed closings over the past two weeks, parents and students turned out in droves. Some parents questioned Mr. Becton's sensitivity to their concerns, calling him a "dictator."

A few of the 16 schools targeted for closing are considered among the district's best. Lewis Elementary is one-third empty and needs a new roof, but its 3rd graders had the best standardized-test scores in the system last year.

At another school proposed for closing, Hearst Elementary, parents camp out overnight in hopes of being at the front of the line to enroll their children there. Amy Natalini, a 29-year-old teacher, said Hearst is the only reason she's stayed in the school district.

"I would be devastated for the children who would never have the opportunity to go to a school like this," Ms. Natalini said.

Differing Priorities

The school system estimates it could save $1.33 million a year out of a $482 million operating budget by closing the 16 schools and reap even more by selling the properties.

City Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, who is lobbying to save half of the 16 schools, argued that real estate concerns shouldn't override successful educational programs. She added that Mr. Becton should be focused on hiring a permanent chief education officer and evaluating principals.

"It's been four and a half months [since Mr. Becton started], and I think people expected to see more positive change in that time," she said.

Some members of the elected school board, which is challenging the takeover that took away its power, said Mr. Becton ignores them and doesn't understand the community. "He's not that approachable, maybe because of his military experience," board member Angie Corley said.

But Mr. Becton said that he has a good relationship with the elected board and insisted that reforms are in the works. This month, the district will settle on academic standards, he said. He also plans to open a school for disruptive students next year.

Barbara A. Bullock, the president of the 4,500-member Washington Teachers Union, said that although she is concerned about the closings, she still has confidence in the retired general.

"He's an excellent manager," she said, "but this is going to be a real tough decision for him."

A veteran of three wars, Mr. Becton said he is not fazed by his critics.

"I think we're doing quite well, but if the public expects to see test scores increase by the end of this year, they'll be disappointed," he said. "The most important person I have to deal with is the person I see in the mirror every morning. I'm doing what I think is right."

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