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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