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Published: Thursday, 3/18/2010

Detroit plans to close over 25% of its schools

ASSOCIATED PRESS

DETROIT - Doors are expected to shut on 44 of Detroit's 172 public schools in June as the district fights through steadily declining enrollment and a budget deficit of more than $219 million, an emergency financial manager said yesterday.

Three aging, traditional, and underpopulated high schools would be among the 44 closures. Another six schools are to be closed in June, 2011, followed by seven more a year later, emergency financial manager Robert Bobb said.

Detroit already closed 29 schools before the start of classes last fall and shuttered 35 buildings about three years ago. Parents like Jena Williams, 41, call it a worrisome trend. Her 5-year-old daughter's school, Bunche Elementary, is on the June list.

"I am not happy about it, but the population of the city is shrinking and the people who have the means are moving out," Ms. Williams said.

The closures are part of a $1 billion, five-year plan to downsize a struggling district, which also is looking to improve education, test scores, and student safety in a city whose population has declined with each passing decade. The 2010 U.S. Census is expected to show that far fewer than 900,000 people now live in Detroit.

"You've got to give DPS a chance. You've got to give Detroit a chance. I'm trying to," said Ms. Williams, an unemployed General Motors Co. contract worker.

District data shows full-time, prekindergarten through 12th grade enrollment has decreased from about 164,500 in 2002-03 to 87,700 for the current school year. Enrollment is projected to dip to 56,500 in 2014-15.

More than half the seats in dozens of buildings are empty.

"This creates a leaner, smarter DPS by taking into account citywide demographic trends," Mr. Bobb said. "We're still going to grow the district. We're going to do it realistically."

Other cities face similar woes. The Kansas City school district announced plans last week to close nearly half its schools by the start of classes in the fall. DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta is considering closing 12 schools over the next two years to help trim an anticipated $88 million deficit, while St. Louis public schools spokesman Julie Linder said the superintendent there has indicated "everything is on the table" to stem a projected $57.5 million shortfall.

Several community meetings will be held in Detroit before final decisions are made about the schools' fates in late April. A support building also is slated to close this summer. Many buildings eventually will be demolished, while others may be sold.

Some new and renovated schools will house prekindergarten through eighth grade. Others will educate students starting in prekindergarten through high school. But new building configurations will ensure younger students don't encounter older students, Mr. Bobb said.

Thousands of students will be transferred to open schools, and that's expected to anger parents. But Mr. Bobb hopes to convince them that the closures, along with a recently released five-year plan that calls for more rigorous academics, are best for the district.

"Every school should be an excellence school," he said.

But parent LaShawn Smith said she considers Bunche such a school; she drives her three children across town to get there.

"He's closing too many schools," Ms. Smith said. "There are going to be too many kids in classes now at the remaining schools."

The facilities plan will be implemented in two phases. The first is funded by a voter-approved bond sale of $500.5 million. The second calls for voter approval on a second $500 million bond sale "assuming citizens take an active role in a new bond measure in the future," Mr. Bobb said.

It's not known if Mr. Bobb will be around for the start of the plan's second phase. He was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm last March to straighten out the district's finances. His contract ends in March, 2011.



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