A primer on rezoning and school closing

The School Board of Richmond Public Schools will consider closing three schools. Why would they want to, why it’s controversial, and what happens next.

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The School Board of Richmond Public Schools has scheduled two public meetings over the next few weeks to discuss a proposal to close three schools. Closing the schools would mean rezoning those students to new schools.

WHY WOULD THE SCHOOL BOARD WANT TO CLOSE SCHOOLS?

Simply put, the school system is spending money maintaining and staffing more buildings than are needed to educate the students in the system.

We have too many schools for the number of students we have. With the way enrollment has declined, it’s just not feasible to keep open 50 buildings.Glen Sturtevant, 1st District representative (Times-Dispatch)

The elementary enrollment in RPS fell from 14,168 in 2001-2002 to 12,014 in 2011-2012, a drop of 2,154 students or about 15%. The number of active elementary schools has dropped in that time from 34 to 28. The Population and Enrollment Forecasts, 2011-2021 (PDF) predicts further continued drops in enrollment, saying that “all but one of the elementary attendance areas show a net decline in students for the period 2016 to 2021.”

Richmond Public Schools began the rezoning process in October 2011 (PDF) to take “a comprehensive look at the existing Richmond Public School zones and facilities.” The 6th District’s Shonda Harris-Muhammad served as Chairperson of the Rezoning Committee which ultimately suggested closing four elementary schools–though Clark Springs Elementary School was not on that list.

Closing under-enrolled schools to strengthen the school system’s budget has been a topic of discussion for years. Most recently, after rounds of public meetings held by the Rezoning Committee through 2011 and 2012, there seems to be broad consensus that schools need to be closed to more accurately reflect the actual student population of the city. None of the School Board members have said that they are opposed to the closing of schools in the abstract.

Clark Springs Elementary School

Clark Springs Elementary School

SO WHAT IS THE CONTROVERSY?

The issues getting the most attention are the potential closing of Clark Springs Elementary School and the timing of the proposed changes. Opponents say that this is much too late in the year to close schools for the next year, and doing so at this time places a burden on the system and the community. Supporters say that the School Board must take this step to make the system viable financially, and available money must be used to best provide for the students.

The School Board initially voted in February to begin the process of closing schools. The current School Board, with seven of the nine representatives newly elected in November and in office only since January, were lauded for coming to City Council with a balanced budget. They were able to erase a deficit of almost $12 million–with some of the savings based on closing as yet unnamed schools.

Mamie Taylor (5th District)

Mamie Taylor (5th District)

The School Board then reversed itself in April. Two things happened here: the 5th District’s Mamie Taylor proposed keeping the schools open because one of the most likely to close (Clark Springs ES) is in her district, and she was supported by a enough of the Board who felt that April was too late in the year to announce school closures for the next school year. This put the School Board in the position of then needing to find the $1,000,000 originally expected be saved through the facilities closings.

In May, the School Board once again voted to begin the process of closing schools, placing Clark Springs Elementary School, the Adult Career Development Center, and the old Norrell Elementary building (currently hosting a somewhat controversial pre-k program) on the chopping block.

WHY CLOSE CLARK SPRINGS SPECIFICALLY?

Clark Springs ES and two equivalent, adjacent schools are under-enrolled: there are not enough students at these schools to have them all remain open. Clark Springs ES currently has a gerrymandered draw zone that pulls students from well outside of it’s neighborhood.

In the 2011-2012 school year, Clark Springs enrolled 311 students, though the school is allowed 432 under RPS guidelines. To the west, John B. Cary enrolled 199 (of an allowed 507). To the north, Carver enrolled only 479 out of an allowed 890. The newly proposed zoning closes Clark Springs, and for the most part divides the students among Carver and John B. Cary. This increases enrollment at two under-enrolled schools, while achieving the savings of closing the Clark Springs building.

Closing Clark Springs also allows for school zones which many favor as reflecting “neighborhood schools”. With Clark Springs currently acting as the catch-all district for downtown and west-central Richmond, the school’s draw zone stretches from Highland Park in Northside to Byrd Park in the West End. With the closure of Clark Springs, the Museum District, the area from City Stadium to Oregon Hill, and the area around Carver would all have schools zones more akin to their neighborhoods. Some believe that this would have the effect of bringing students back into the public school system who do not currently participate.

Proposed zone for John B. Cary Elementary School

Proposed zone for John B. Cary Elementary School

WHY NOT CLOSE CLARK SPRINGS?

Opponents of the closing say that Clark Springs is a good school and that the proposed rezoning is flawed. Others believe that it is simply too late in the year to close schools for the next school year.

5th District Representative Mamie Taylor says that Clark Springs should not be closed because, “I am especially opposed to closing Clark Springs, which is a high performing school that allows students, as does Fox, the opportunity to go outside of their zoned neighborhoods to experience a top of the line education. [...] It provides its students with a top-notched education, dedicated staff, and a family-like setting. I think that it is unfair to place Clark Springs on the table for closure without even considering any other schools.”

She also asserts that the proposed Plan C rezoning is flawed: “it appears to segregate our schools and it limits the ability for families to have access to high performing schools through open enrollment.”

One of the features of Plan C is that the Museum District would be a part of the Fox Elementary zone. There is a chance that pulling these students out of Cary ES would impact the diversity of that school (78% black, 13% white, 6% hispanic / 2011-2012 RPS). Expanding the number students zones for Fox ES would also have the effect of decreasing the number of available spots for open enrollment at the popular school.

I will never support closing schools in May. We should not do this right now… it’s just not good business. It’s not building a good relationship with our community.

6th District representative Shonda Harris-Muhammad (Times-Dispatch)

There are a number of members of the School Board who do not necessarily oppose closing Clark Springs, but who feel that it is too late in the year to be closing schools for next year. There will be inconveniences and complications in closing a school only four months before students and teachers are to report to school again. Almost all of the elementary schools north of the river would see some rezoning changes, about which parents would need to be notified. Further complicating the picture, the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools Dr. Yvonne Brandon will be stepping down on June 30.

OK, NOW WHAT?

There are two public meetings scheduled:

  • Tuesday, May 28th 5:30PM at Thomas Jefferson High School
  • Monday, June 3rd 5PM in Council Chamber at City Hall
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17 comments on A primer on rezoning and school closing

  1. Scott Burger on said:

    I hear the reason that Clark Spring is being closed is because it is easy for “repurposing”. Repurposing for what?
    Have there been any undisclosed, unsolicited bids for the Clark Springs property (say, by VCU)?

  2. Rachel Meadow on said:

    Someone in Oregon Hill has started this rumor because they are afraid that VCU is going to grow into their neighborhood. Trani is not the President there anymore and their plans for growth are much more contained, and all considerations are to the North and East. I think it is sad not to let a good plan go forward for the good of all the children in the city because some paranoid OH residents fear their neighbor to the North.
    http://wp.vcu.edu/vcu2020/

  3. Page H on said:

    If only the previous school board had followed through on their assigned task of completing rezoning, the issue would have been behind us and the current board could focus on other issues. Rezoning is not going to make anybody happy. The longer they delay, the more reason they’re giving people to opt out of the system altogether. I know a few families who just couldn’t take the uncertainty any longer.

  4. Scott Burger on said:

    First of all, I did not start the rumor, but there is definitely concern about it from Randolph residents as well. I talked with them last night.

    Secondly, it’s not just about VCU. There is also citizen concern about developers taking over school buildings. Quote from a neighbor: “This is how we lost Robert E. Lee right after it got a new roof.”

    Thirdly, there seems to be a lot of questions about closing Clark Springs in general-

    http://byrdpark.net/2013/05/23/50-questions-for-the-school-board/

    And about the data behind the decision-

    http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/local/education/article_3599dfd1-bbf1-563a-9ab4-ca7e5acd79af.html

  5. Sadly, for residents of Byrd Park, Randolph, and Oregon Hill, the new boundary is a tough reminder of the historic scar created by the RMA Downtown Expressway that tore through the city and cut many lower income residents from their more affluent neighbors to the north.

  6. JC on said:

    My growing family lives near the Carillon, and we’ve always heard good things about John B. Cary. Honestly, the new zone is more appealing to me and feels more natural than what is currently in place. Our neighborhood is physically connected to Byrd Park and Randolph and City Stadium in a way that we are not with the Museum District. I think that the Byrd Park post linked for “neighborhood schools” above captures this spirit quite well.

  7. Susan on said:

    I am opposed to closing Clark Springs 3 months prior to the start of the school year. So they will re-open open enrollment, but surely most spots are already taken. That is not fair. And where is the savings detail that is attributed to closing that specific school? Simply unfair this late in the game. I am also concerned about the DECREASED diversity in other schools ! and the bad data that the consultant has been working with. Let’s see a true cost vs benefit analysis of closing Clark Springs.

  8. Susan on said:

    Looking at Virginia DOE data the K-5 increase is 5.7% since 2008/09 school year. Not bad – in fact it’s pretty damn great. And during this time schools have grown more diverse. I think that choice provided through open enrollment has greatly contributed to more diversity. A big reason not to rush through closing Clark Springs in May/ June.

  9. The DOE numbers are here: http://bi.vita.virginia.gov/doe_bi/rdPage.aspx?rdReport=Main&subRptName=Fallmembership and show and increase from 10,979 in 2008-2009 to 11,606 in 2012-2013.

    RPS has the 2008-2009 elementary enrollment as 12,204 and the 2011-2012 enrollment as 12,014 (a 2.5% decrease). VIA http://web.richmond.k12.va.us/AboutRPS/Statistics.aspx

    Not sure of the differing numbers. VDOE explains that there count reflects “the number of students enrolled in public school on September 30th.”

    Looking at that same VDOE data, it looks like RPS elementary school was 83% black in 2008-2009, and 86% black in 2012-2013. Are there other data that show that they school system is becoming more diverse?

  10. Adria Scharf & Thad Williamson on said:

    Fifty questions for the school board regarding school closures and re-zoning.
    1. Best practice guidelines issued by the state of California regarding school closure decisions state that “The decision to close a school must be based upon hard, empirical evidence that leads to a broadly supported, incontrovertible conclusion-the district cannot afford to keep a particular school(s) open without cuts elsewhere (budget, staffing, etc.).”
    This is also common sense. How then can the board majority approve a rezoning and closure plan when by everyone’s admission, correct data on its demographic consequences have not been made available?
    2. Put it another way, how can you vote for a plan without knowing all its consequences?
    3. Why is Clark Springs, a school with test scores higher than the district average and with outstanding performance on the 2012 Math SOLs, targeted for closure?
    4. How much money will be saved by closing Clark Springs?
    5. How many of the board members voting for the proposals have visited Clark Springs and the surrounding neighborhood?
    6. How many of the board members voting for the proposal have otherwise spoken with the principal or staff there to discuss the school’s strengths and weaknesses?
    7. How many of the board members voting for the proposal know the name of the principal at Clark Springs? Are board members aware she is also the principal for the Maymont pre-K program? How will closing Clark Springs impact Maymont?
    8. Are board members voting for the proposal aware that Clark Springs has just over $140,000 of identified infrastructure needs, far less than most other schools in the district?
    9. Are board members voting for the proposal confident that all the students now at Clark Springs will be moving into a better academic and social environment at their new school? If so, on what basis? If not, on what moral basis do they justify harming the academic and social development of the children at Clark Springs?
    10. How many of the board members voting for the proposal are aware of the Thirteen Acres program for emotionally disturbed children at Clark Springs?
    11. How many of the board members voting for the proposal have visited that program or spoken with its leadership to assess how well it is faring in the Clark Springs context?
    12. How many of the board members voting for the proposal have begun thinking about where an alternative location for Thirteen Acres might be?
    13. If so, what is that location? Does that location provide for all the needs of Thirteen Acres children as well as or better than the Clark Springs site?
    14. Are the board members voting for the proposal aware of research demonstrating the importance of stability, and the damaging impact of instability, on children who have suffered trauma or abuse, such as many of the children at Thirteen Acres?
    15. Do the school board members voting for this proposal believe that hastily cobbling together a transition plan for Thirteen Acres does adequate justice to the children in the program, and shows respect for their needs and development? Are they willing to explain in person to the parents and caregivers of Thirteen Acres students why moving the program precipitously is an absolutely necessary step?
    16. Has the school board identified an alternative location for the pre-K center now located at Norrell? Does this location meet the needs of the program as well as or better than the Norrell site?
    17. What is the status of the restructured CCP program? What building will this program go to? How is the transition process for that program going? Is the board confident that the transition will be seamlessly completed over the summer?
    18. Where will the services and program now located at the Adult Career Development Center be provided?
    19. Will it be located somewhere easily accessible by GRTC?
    20. Will the new space allow room for future expansion of these critical programs?
    21. Is planning for the relocated ACDC being undertaken in coordination with other city agencies working on workforce development?
    22. Why has the board chosen to move all Clark Springs students south of I-195 to Cary, including those who live geographically closer to Fox, while moving all Cary students north of I-195 to Fox, including those who live geographically closer to Cary?
    23. Are the members voting for this proposal aware that numerous families at Cary living north of I-195 are already invested in Cary?
    24. Do the members voting for this proposal assume that residents on Grayland, Parkwood and other streets in Cartytown South prefer to be in Fox rather than Cary? On what basis do they make this assumption? Have they asked, or provided adequate opportunity to disseminate the proposal?
    25. Why does the board favor a redistricting option that is likely to decrease the proportion of black students at Fox at the same time it increases the proportion of black students at Cary, thereby heightening the racial polarization between the two neighborhood schools?
    26. Why does the board favor a redistricting option that very substantially increases the proportion of children in poverty at Cary (from 50% to 74%), while at the same time leaving the percentage of low-income students at Fox under 20%, compared to a system-wide average of 71%?
    27. Why is the school board undercutting Cary at a time it is showing potential to develop into truly racially and class integrated school, similar to Linwood Holton?
    28. Is the school board aware that the proportion of white student at Cary increased from 12.5% to 20% from 2011-12 to 2012-13?
    29. Is the school board aware that 40% of current kindergartners at Cary are white?
    30. If so, why is the school board pulling the plug now on the possibility of Cary continuing to emerge in years to come as a strong, high-performing diverse school by removing all students north of I-195?
    31. Have any school board members engaged in disparaging remarks or communications about Cary or any other school in RPS, beyond purely factual, data-based observations? If so, do they believe this is an appropriate way to talk about other schools in the system, given it is the board’s responsibility to promote education in all schools?
    32. Have all the school board members voting for this proposal visited Cary and spoken with its principal? Have they taken the opportunity to speak with the principal directly about any concerns they may have with the school?
    33. Is this board committed to offering an excellent education to students in all schools, or is it planning to offer a top tier education to students in the Fox and Munford zones while treating other schools as second or third-tier? If not, why is it packing as many white middle-class families as possible into Fox under this plan?
    34. Is this board comfortable with providing final approval to a plan before many parents are aware of what the plan actually does? Why is it being proposed to spend money on an education and PR campaign for the proposed changes after the fact, rather than before the fact?
    35. Why are board members claiming that everything in the plan has been discussed before, when the total package in plan C has only been available for two weeks? Do they not understand that talking about individual issues in isolation is not the same thing as talking about a complete plan that has several moving parts?
    36. How much time has this board spent deliberating this proposal? What alternative has it been compared to?
    37. Does the board think it is good policymaking process to deliberate on a proposal when the most basic demographic data on the proposal’s consequences have not been presented?
    38. Does the board think that after school closures have been pushed through on a 5-4 basis, everyone is just going to get along again and there will be no hard feelings in the future?
    39. Does the school board have in mind strong superintendent candidates who are eager to work for a board that is divided on a 5-4 basis?
    40. What plan is envisioned to merge Clark Springs and Cary Elementary schools? What process for staff assignment will be used? Who will be responsible for carrying it out? What additional support would be provided to help the merger go well?
    41. Is the school board aware that the foundation of academically successful schools in urban settings is a strong school culture, a critical piece of which is the relationship between the principal and the teachers? If so, wouldn’t it make more sense for the Cary principal and potential new staff at Clark Springs to have already begun building a relationship and have plenty of lead time in planning a good transition so the school is ready to go on day one?
    42. Is the school board confident in adequately carrying out all the logistical operations involved in moving schools, including moving furniture, books and supplies, figuring out what needs to go where, reorganizing space at schools accepting new students, and the like? Who in RPS will be responsible for overseeing this process?
    43. Are school board officials confident that at this late point this merger will proceed without substantial chaos and confusion? Are they aware that a chaotic start to a new school could damage the school long-term?
    44. Who in RPS will be held accountable for the success of moving Norell Pre-K, the ACDC, Thirteen Acres, and the CCP, as well as merging Clark Springs, over the next two and half months, given there is no Acting Superintendent?
    45. Is the School Board confident it can monitor all these tasks well at the same time it plans to hire a new permanent superintendent?
    46. What is the plan for treatment of out-of-zone students whose schools will exceed capacity due to the proposed changes? Fox is projected to be at 120% capacity, without counting current private school students who may choose to move to Fox after rezoning.
    47. Is the board assuring families that all students now enrolled in a school, or admitted for next year out of-zone, will be guaranteed a slot at that school?
    48. If not, are board members willing to personally field calls from parents whose school assignment will now be changed?
    49. Do school board members believe that head of enrollment services Harry Morgan knew what he was talking about when he called changing attendance zones after the closure of open enrollment a “train wreck waiting to happen” at the May 20 meeting? If not, why not?
    50. Do school board members believe this process of rushing through school closures on a 5-4 vote without adequately considering the consequences, without planning thoroughly for the transitions involved, is a good example to the community? Is this really the best we can do in Richmond in 2013?

    Background: At the 11th hour, the Richmond Public School board has voted on a 5 to 4 vote to close Clark Springs and radically redistrict Cary Elementary School, with a plan that will overall affect 20% of the district’s elementary school children. It will also affect Adult Career Development Center, Norrell pre-K, and the Thirteen Acres program for emotionally disabled children.
    This decision has been made without members having the correct data to assess the impact of this change on families, schools, and racial integration in the school district.
    The next two School Board public hearings on the proposals to rezone and close schools are scheduled for these dates.

    May 28, 5:30pm, Thomas Jefferson High School (4100 W. Grace Street)
    Monday June 3, 5:00pm, City Hall City Council Chambers (900 E. Broad Street)

    In addition, here are the emails of school board members. The advocates of the rushed rezoning and school closure plan are the first five individuals listed. Please share your thoughts with them and the other school board members:
    glen.sturtevant@gmail.com , kgray@richmond.k12.va.us , jbourne@richmond.k12.va.us , klarson@richmond.k12.va.us , djones15@richmond.k12.va.us , mtaylor4@richmond.k12.va.us , smuhamme@richmond.k12.va.us , teppes@richmond.k12.va.us , dcoleman2@richmond.k12.va.us
    If you care about the children of this city, make your voices heard.

  11. I wrote the ByrdPark.net story that JC refers to (thanks neighbor). It’s good to hear that others in what would become the new John B. Cary zone see it as, geographically, a natural fit. Cary can’t stay half-full much longer and Clark Springs can’t continue with only 1/3 of the eligible households sending their kids there. Although the zone should probably be extended north to Cary or Main street, it seems like a good way to galvanize our neighborhoods behind a community school instead of dividing the area with gerrymandered zones.

    That said, I might feel differently if I didn’t have the pressing issue of a 5yr-old who needs to attend kindergarten in a few months. Like Page mentioned earlier, a lot of us realize that rezoning is never going to make everybody happy, but it should have happened in 2012. So, I just want to see forward movement. By the way, at ByrdPark.net, we’ve just posted 50 Questions for the School Board, by a Byrd Park neighbor.

  12. Susan on said:

    So you see the 5.7% increase from 2008/09. The increasing diversity I see at rps statistics information. 86% Black in 2008/09 and 82% in 2011/12 – I don’t see the current data at rps.

  13. Susan on said:

    Anyone – What is the specific annual $ savings attributed to closing Clark Springs? I think this is most relevant, but still would not erase the wrongness of doing this 3 montths prior to the school year, not to mention full evaluation using correct data and addressing why no other schools considered for closure.

  14. Susan on said:

    John Murden – the RPS enrollment numbers are flawed. The 2011/12 numbers do not even include Patrick Henry charter school enrollment. Looks like VDOE numbers are more accurate – 5.7% K-5 increase in 4 years. Looks like a trend to me. Hope the school board doesn’t screw it up.

  15. Mary Boyes on said:

    John: I have not seen any information online that clearly presents the implications of approved zoning changes. Do you have any sense of this or any resources that parents might be able to use? We are leaving RPS but a lot of parents seem at sea and I thought you might have a lead on info that might clarify things for them.

    Thanks!

  16. john m on said:

    Mary – here is a map of the new zoning that was approved (http://web.richmond.k12.va.us/Portals/0/assets/AboutRPS/pdfs/PlanC-Map.pdf) (it’s a decent sized download)

    For where you’re at, basically everybody from Oregon Hill to City Stadium will be going to Cary ES. That school should be much closer to capacity now.

    Fox ES will pull from the Fan and also now the Museum District.

    Feel free hit me up with any specific questions.

  17. john m on said:

    Updates maps showing the most recent zoning: http://fanofthefan.com/2013/06/updated-elementary-zoning-map/

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