09 April 2009

Detroit Public Schools Plan Closings, Layoffs, Upgrades

Story from the Detroit News

Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial manager on Wednesday said he plans to send layoff notices to 600 teachers and close Chadsey High School, Guyton Elementary and 21 other schools in the fall because of plummeting enrollment and a mounting deficit.

Robert Bobb, the manager, also announced plans to plow more than $200 million into existing buildings by enhancing security and making structural and other improvements.

Bobb said the closings and layoffs are necessary to stave off a $306 million deficit, but parents are already distraught over the changes, which will force the transfer of 7,500 students.

"My biggest problem is that if you close schools that kids attend, send them to a place that is better," said Rudy Jones, who has two daughters at Courtis Elementary, which is slated for closure.

The plan calls for the girls to be transferred to nearby Noble Elementary, which Jones said is structurally worse and lacks computer labs and other academic necessities. "I have no emotional ties to Courtis, but brick for brick, it's a better, safer environment."

He said he won't send his girls to Noble.

To determine which schools would close, Bobb and his team considered neighborhood redevelopment plans, population patterns, schools' student achievement levels and the condition of school buildings.

According to the district, for example, Noble is rated higher in academics using federal guidelines and Courtis' building would require $3.7 million in structural improvements, compared to $2.8 million at Noble. Nine of the schools on the closure list are in various stages of failure to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), ranging from alert to Phase 8, and some schools were at less than half their capacity.

Bobb said some of the 600 teachers who receive layoff notices -- who make up about 11.3 percent of the total -- may be recalled, but it's unknown how many.

Keith Johnson, President of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he knew of the layoff notices and understands some layoffs are necessary because of declining enrollment. He said he is concerned for any teacher who loses a job, but he believes many layoffs will be rescinded or teachers recalled after retirements and resignations are factored in.

"It may not be as bad as it seems," he said.

The closings will save $8.8 million annually beginning in the second year, Bobb said, though he acknowledged his plan requires a delicate balancing act between necessary cuts and preventing thousands more parents and students from fleeing the district. This concern is why the plan includes enhancements to schools that receive students from closed buildings, as well as others, he said.

"We are asking parents to stay with us and give us an opportunity," Bobb said. "Don't abandon the system ... We're going to stand up and fight for you, and if you're not getting a quality education in your schools, if the principals aren't standing up, if the teachers aren't standing up, and giving your children the type of education they need and deserve, we'll take whatever action we have to take."

Bobb said he is notifying the community and working with city planners to ensure the shuttered schools won't add blight to neighborhoods already impacted by dozens of shuttered Detroit schools dotting the landscape. He said he expects to make a final decision on closures by May 8.

But parents say the district also must take into account how the closures will impact their children.

"If you treat the parents poorly, we have an option," said parent Chris White. Parents can simply leave the district, he said.

Plan includes upgrades

Bobb plans to spend $25 million to enhance security at several schools, by replacing doors, adding security cameras and creating a new video monitoring system for the district's Department of Public Safety.

Parents have been crying out for enhanced security, and the school system has been plagued by violent intruders. Just last week, a school social worker tackled a boy who allegedly entered a school with a sawed-off shotgun.

At Central High School earlier this school year, several intruders engaged in a gun fight in the school halls. Officials have long said securing aging structures with dozens of doors is nearly impossible.

Bobb is asking the state to use federal stimulus funding for the majority of the building projects, which include other infrastructure improvements like lighting, roofs and new boilers.

Another $20 million from a 1994 bond issue will be used to repair and renovate schools that will be receiving new students, with an additional $6 million from allocated, unspent funds to improve several schools where students transferred as part of the last closure plan where 33 schools were shuttered.

He said financing options are being reviewed for three new K-12 educational complexes to replace Chadsey and Finney high schools and remodel or replace Mumford High.

Building review planned

Bobb also will review which shuttered buildings -- including 56 already vacant structures -- would be targeted for demolition, redevelopment or sale to charter schools. He acknowledged that closings must be strategic to avoid a greater loss of students. The district, which has about 96,000 students, has been losing about 10,000 students a year most years since 2001. But the community in the past has staged protests and railed against closures, which some say are contributing to the dismantling of the school system.

Former superintendent Connie Calloway this school year opted not to close schools after the district found the 33 school closings the previous year cost the system millions of dollars. An internal report compiled by a committee of academic and non-academic "stakeholders" and authored by Calloway said the district lost $11.3 million because students left the district following the closures.

Michelle Dixon, whose daughter, Mya, is a fourth grader at Guyton Elementary, which is slated for closure, said she plans to enroll her in a charter school, rather than a public school farther away. The school has been on the chopping block before.

"It's sad. That school is a neighborhood school, so it's very convenient for a lot of kids to walk back and forth," she said. "Closing the schools where people are working and the community is helping out -- that's not the solution."

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