Budget, Quality, Population Issues Lead Cities to Close Schools: Is Yours Next?

Jermaine Jenkins has no idea where his 4-year-old son will be going to school next year.

Jenkins is one of hundreds of parents in Kansas City, Mo., who will be impacted when the district shutters nearly half of its schools in the fall, a move that could put Jenkins' son out of school.

"It was a shock," Jenkins said of the school board's decision to approve the largest school closing in the district's history.

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Of the district's 61 schools, 26 will be closed or consolidated come August. This includes high schools, middle schools, elementary schools and early childhood centers, which includes Faxon Montessori, a public elementary school and early childhood center that Jenkins' son attends. The remaining two public Montessoris, Jenkins says, are nearly at full capacity.

"They say they can't enroll any child right now. I don't know where my son is going to go to school next year," said Jenkins, who serves as the president of Faxon's Parent-Teacher Association. "They are not thinking of whole overall. They're just thinking capacity and money."

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The Kansas City school board's decision last week sent shockwaves through the country, and experts say this could just be the beginning.

Enrollment at Kansas City's public schools has declined rapidly. Thanks to charter schools and an exodus to the city's burgeoning suburbs, there are roughly 17,000 kids today, compared to the peak of 70,000 in 1979. Facing a $50 million budget shortfall, the board last week approved the new superintendent's plan to close schools that the district deemed to be under capacity.

Experts say the district has long suffered from mismanagement and did not keep up with the shifting dynamics; hence, the cuts were long overdue. But while Kansas City's case may be unique because of the size of closures and the drastic reduction in enrollment, it does signal a trend that is likely to accelerate in these tough economic times.

Just today, Robert Bobb, Detroit's emergency financial manager, announced plans to close 45 schools in the next five years because of declining enrollment.

"As demographic shifts keep happening and cities continue to lose students, the traditional public schools are going to have to get smaller," said Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based educational research and advocacy organization. "This is exacerbated by [an] increase in charter schools in many places... so we're certainly going to see more of the enrollment-based closures, probably in a lot of the older cities."

The trend is likely to be consolidated in urban areas that may not be experiencing the same kind of boom they once did.

"When districts are forced into draconian budget cuts, school closure is the last resort. It's a very painful decision to make but sometimes districts are forced to make them," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution.

It may be unpopular but, after Kansas City's announcement, both economists and educators are calling for other struggling cities to re-evaluate their school districts.

Tough economic times actually present an opportunity to school districts to evaluate the size of their student population and their building maintenance costs, which are the second largest expense after teacher salaries, according to Smarick.

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