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Published: Sunday, 3/29/2009

Closing, opening Toledo Public Schools is lesson in local passions

BY MEGHAN GILBERT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

At least a half dozen schools will close, a couple new ones will open, and some students will be forced to switch buildings.

It's the future of Toledo Public Schools as it reorganizes to "right size" its 55 buildings.

It has buildings such as DeVeaux Middle School with too many students, 477 in this case - and others, such as Libbey High School, with too few - only 25 percent of the seats are filled at Libbey.

Schools with such small enrollment are to be closed.

"Obviously there's a lot of passion around closing schools. We anticipated that," Superintendent John Foley said. "We know it's going to be a tough discussion, but it's one we have to address."

Six schools outside the master plan for the district's $640 million Building for Success plan eventually will be closed: Libbey High School, Lincoln Academy for Boys, and East Side Central, Fulton, Lagrange, and Nathan Hale elementary schools.

Other schools also could be shuttered as the district redraws boundary lines - for the first time in at least three decades - around its seven traditional high schools.

A series of community meetings on the redistricting ends with the Waite High School area meeting Tuesday. During the meetings, Mr. Foley has been presenting capacity issues for new boundaries and seeking new ideas.

"The district has laid out some options, and it's not to say 'This is what the district is going to do,'•" said Lisa Sobecki, chairman of the Toledo Board of Education's subcommittee that monitors the building program.

"It's options and asking the community to help change the boundary lines."

Delores Latson, a parent of a Scott High School student, was one of the few parents at the most recent meeting for her community, on Thursday.

Although it's sad that schools will close, economically it makes sense, she said, but her biggest concern is bringing students back to Toledo Public so this downward spiral doesn't continue.

"Give the students a reason to stay, better yet give the parents a reason to keep the students in the neighborhood," she said.

The fate of Libbey High School has dominated much of the recent discussions.

Although Libbey has been out of the district's building plan for some time, the idea of its ceasing to exist has upset many. And critics say the district's proposal to send its students to other high schools is an example of segregating student populations.

Most of Libbey's students would go to Scott because the large school will be renovated and has plenty of room for them.

But during the community forums, some have said it appears that the district plans to send Libbey's black students to Scott, the white students on the western edge to Bowsher, and the Hispanic students on the eastern edge to Waite.

Mr. Foley said the district doesn't control neighborhood demographics - meaning the district can't dictate where students attend class.

It's been at least 30 years since the district went through a process of redrawing boundary lines. Although it has closed schools in the past, the efforts haven't been as comprehensive, officials said.

Although many of the district's buildings lack students to fill them, several neighborhoods have both the old and newly built schools open because they have too many students to fit into the new school.

DeVeaux has nearly 500 extra students, Sherman Elementary School is 116 above capacity, Whittier Elementary is 216 over, and Keyser Elementary has more than 50 over capacity.

Maintaining those conditions is expensive, and that could play into some of the district's decisions.

"The discussions we're having are capacity-driven," Mr. Foley said. "The decisions may be accelerated or decelerated based on the budget."

Although officials are still crunching the numbers, the district lost 1,650 students from last year, and it receives about $5,700 per student from state and local funds.

That will affect the district's bottom line, which could require additional school closings to bridge the gap.

"We know we're going to have to make reductions because we lost students," Mr. Foley said.

Cutbacks to buildings, staff, and programs have yet to be announced.

And exact closing dates also aren't known yet for the six schools identified to be shut.

Steven Steel, president of the Toledo Board of Education, said the "fundamental question" is when these redistricting changes will be made - which ones are needed for the upcoming 2009-10 school year and which can be accomplished in phases.

The new Spring and King elementary schools are scheduled to open this fall and don't have district boundaries because they're new, Mr. Steel said.

Some of the others can be phased in as the building program, which goes through 2011-12, is completed.

Part of the challenge is that there's been a "huge and unpredictable shift in enrollment" during the district's recent building program, with charter schools and education choice programs drawing students away from the public schools, Mr. Steel said.

"It's tough to undergo massive infrastructure change when you have no idea what the clientele will be," he said.

Adding to the uncertainty are the unknowns from Ohio's troubled budget.

In addition to the district's building plan - aided by the Ohio School Facilities Commission - it has planned school renovations to be paid for with the $37 million bond issue passed in November.

During the election campaign, the district promised renovations of Scott and Waite high schools, Old West End Academy, Crossgates, Edgewater, Glendale-Feilbach, and Harvard elementary schools, and the former DeVilbiss High School that houses Toledo Technology Academy.

Steven Flagg, a member of the district watchdog group the Urban Coalition, has attended all of the community meetings and suggests closing some schools, including Edgewater and Harvard, he said.

"You're going to end up with a plan that doesn't make sense and is wasting money just because you can't admit you made a mistake," Mr. Flagg said.

Another mistake, he suggests, is that the district limited itself to what is known as "learning communities" as it redraws boundary lines.

"The better approach would have been to look at it in a holistic way," Mr. Flagg said. "Because of the limitations they've given themselves, I think they might end up with a worse plan."

But Mr. Foley said the concept of creating the learning communities - which contain neighborhood schools - is important to residents.

Learning communities are organized by the traditional high schools and include the elementary or middle schools that feed into them.

The district has two high schools - Toledo Early College High School and Toledo Technology Academy - that are not neighborhood-based.

Some students said they understand the importance of neighborhood schools, but said they don't want the district to eliminate their ability to attend buildings outside of their areas.

Terance Gaston, 17, a sophomore at Scott High School, attended the most recent community meeting. He said his greatest concern is the type of offerings at the schools.

"It doesn't matter the size of the school if you have students there who want to learn," he said.

Jonathan Williamson, 17, a junior at Scott, agreed. "I think kids should have the opportunity to go anywhere they want to go," he said.

Mr. Foley stressed that the redistricting process is not finalized. The district will compile ideas from the community meetings, include them in final plans, and then with the board's support return to the public before plans are put into effect.

"Whatever decision we make, we'll make some people happy and some people not as happy," he said.

Contact Meghan Gilbert at:

mgilbert@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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