Across the country, many school districts are grappling with declining enrollment. Many of these districts are opting to shutter schools in an effort to save money. This is despite conflicting research on the benefits of school closures. Now, Dayton may be next. In December, DPS leaders revealed many district schools are operating at under 50-percent capacity. Officials launched a task force to help decide the fate of Dayton’s emptiest school buildings –– many of them on the city's west side. DPS authorities refer to the effort as a facilities "right-sizing."
Advocacy group Racial Justice NOW! (RJN) met at the end of January to vent their frustrations and brainstorm solutions. Their debate centered on the makeup of the school facilities task force, which includes city and county government officials, education and business leaders, but no parents.
“I really feel like we just don’t trust this task force,” said RJN interim director Hashim Jabar. “There’s been a lack of transparency.”
Jabar says they’re concerned that parent voices aren’t being taken into account in the decision making process.
And, he says, they’re worried the reorganization will disproportionately affect black students. The nine schools DPS singled out as having low enrollment all have high minority populations.
More than that, the group is just not convinced closing schools is the best solution to the district’s enrollment problem.
Some education experts aren’t convinced either.
“The research suggests there’s hidden costs that can be there….It can almost be counterproductive,” says Dr. Charlie Russo, a professor of education and law at the University of Dayton.
He says school closures aren’t quite as cost-effective as some school districts may initially believe them to be.
For starters, he says, school closures can result in more district-owned vacant buildings. And that often leads to other expenses.
“They're going to have to provide more security that they didn't anticipate. They’re going to have to put up fences around the buildings. That’s all in addition to what they're going to have to pay to move equipment. And, they're going to have to pay to upgrade and update the buildings in the locations where they're going.”
Russo says all these little costs can add up. In addition to security and equipment relocation, districts are also on the hook for new bus transportation and excess inventory storage.
In Washington D.C., costs associated with 2008 school closures eventually piled up to nearly $40 million, about four times what the district was initially projected to spend.
Russo says the academic costs of school closures can pile up too.
“Kids are going from an environment where they're hopefully more comfortable, where they know the teachers, they know where the bathroom is, they know where the cafeteria is. Then, they’re put in a whole new environment without supports that might have been present in that first school. The likelihood of these kids actually improving academically is probably pretty slim.”
Research on the effects of school closures is mixed.
A study conducted shortly the closing of several Chicago elementary schools found students that relocated to high-performing schools tended to improve academically.
But only six percent of affected students actually got spots at top-tier schools. Nearly half ended up at low-performing schools.
At a recent meeting, members of Dayton’s school facilities task force agreed that improving the academic performance of district students should be a top priority But, they were unclear about how consolidating or closing school facilities could help accomplish that.
Ultimately, members of the task force will not make the final decision on DPS school closures, but they will offer recommendations to the superintendent and school board.
Dr. Elizabeth Lolli, DPS acting superintendent, says it would impossible for district to shutter all nine low enrollment schools. Although specific buildings have not yet been slated for closure, she says she expects at least some of those schools will close.
“It’s likely to be two to four buildings maximum. The two to four still haven’t been decided because we still have to see what everyone will come up with. But it’s not nearly as catastrophic as some people are continuing to express.”
Lolli says DPS has organized meetings for parents of students attendings one of the district’s nine low-enrollment schools. The meetings are intended for parents only, and are not open to the general public.
“The parents are going to be working with a facilitator in small groups so that they have an opportunity to actually express their thoughts and their opinions as opposed to someone taking a microphone and taking over a meeting and not allowing someone to offer their input.”
Earlier this month the district faced legal challenges after barring the media and the public from previously announced task-force meetings. Ultimately, DPS decided to open the meetings to the public for observation only.
Racial Justice NOW! interim director Hashim Jabar says the district’s overall handling of the matter has left many parents feeling confused and suspicious.
“We don’t trust them. We don’t trust the words that come out of their mouths. What they say in public is not what they say in private.”
Organizers from RJN have already sent a list of their concerns and suggested solutions to district officials.
DPS officials are inviting input from the general public at community meetings scheduled for February 22 at Meadowdale Elementary and February 28 at EJ Brown Middle School.