EDU FAQ #005: What’s the reasoning behind closing schools?

Richmond Public Schools proposed closing a handful of schools recently, and it didn’t go over well. Here’s another hard look at the data.

Abandoned school playground

Photo by: RafalZych

Emotions ran high over the now-famous proposal to close Armstrong High School and three elementary schools, as well as transfer one elementary school to a vacant building.1 The proposal–lacking transparency about the reasons for each selection, and in all reality, a political game of chicken between RPS and City Council–had parents and teachers scared and angry. Because of the way this announcement was rolled out to the school board and the community, a lot of misinformation about the impact and effectiveness of school closings has swirled around.

The major concerns all surround impact on student learning and the actual amount of overall savings. Teachers are worried about layoffs and parents are worried about sending their kids to under-achieving, deteriorating, and overcrowded schools. A lot goes into a decision to close schools, and these announcements aren’t made lightly. Names aren’t picked out of a hat (at least, good grief, I hope not). After speaking with Superintendent Dana Bedden, his administration fully realizes that school closures are emotionally charged, as stakeholders are invested in their community schools. Without all of the facts, it can be easy to take the closure announcements as a personal assault. Yet, there are times when school closures are necessary and appropriate. I’ve met with school officials and I’ve spoken to concerned parents to fully understand both sides of this complicated issues. I’ve scoured a lot of data, including the five proposed options (PDF) laid out by the Facilities Task Force that weighed cost and complexity issues. Option 5 was adopted and always included closures from its inception.

How did this information lead us to the named schools? Let’s investigate…

The Budget

In FAQ #004.1, we broke down the $18 million budget gap that RPS is facing for next school year. Some updates on this number have come out since we last spoke of that dang squirrelly operating budget.

Ralph Westbay, the retired Assistant Superintendent for Financial Services, proposed cuts at the April 18th School Board meeting that only equaled $4.9 million, including transportation, technology and staffing cuts, but had taken out school closures.2 This is down from the $9.7 million in possible reductions proposed at the April 4th meeting, which was what started this whole uproar about closures in the first place. In other words folks, school closures may end up being the least of our worries.

After the General Assembly adopted the state budget, the school system only faced a $17.4 million gap. On April 18th, the school board adopted $1.2 million in savings by agreeing to modify transportation to a hub system, close two office buildings, and demolish the vacant Elkhardt Middle School building. On May 6th, City Council agreed on a mere $5.5 million in additional school funding.3 I’ll do that quick math for you…the schools still need to cut $10.7 million from their operating budget to make ends meet. With only $7.7 million left from the original April 4th proposal, including closures, the City still needs to find another $3 million…from where, nobody yet knows.

With the possibility of a fully funded system now off the table, Bedden and the School Board will be forced to consider ways RPS can balance the operating budget. Bedden has made it clear that teacher pay decompression is a priority. The fate of the proposed closures is still unclear, but simply put, the math doesn’t add up to keep schools open AND decompress teacher salaries next year.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, the money isn’t there to do either.

Another kink thrown into this whole budgetary nightmare is that on Tuesday, May 3rd, City Council voted to appropriate funds to RPS by VDOE categories (explained in EDU FAQ #003) instead of a lump sum.4

Essentially, this is an attempt by the council to control how the district will spend money.5 They can say they funded salary decompression ($4.9 million) and funded the opening of Summer Hill Elementary ($200,000), plus gave an undesignated $327,000, but in reality, they don’t have the power by law to designate how the board will spend their funds. If the board decides there are other more pressing priorities than what is listed above, they can reallocate money, as long as it is within the category to which the funds were appropriated. Because the board can’t carry over funds to other categories without mayor and council approval, they have to pay even closer attention to spending to ensure they don’t overspend.

With this new way of appropriation, schools will now have to ensure they stay within seven budgets instead of one. If the board wants to move funds, they are at the mercy of Mayor Jones and City Council. Oy vey! I should digress here. Because really, there is so much more I could say…like the CAO warning Council the City will likely overspend their own budget by $9 million five months before the fiscal year ends and now trying to control how the school board spends their money, too? Double, no, triple oy vey!

The Proposal

During the April 4th School Board Meeting, Westbay shared several balancing options, for a total of $9.7 million in possible reductions. We’re going to work off of this proposal, here, since a new one hasn’t come out and this is closest to covering the $10.7 million deficit. From the proposal, just over $3 million would come from closures, including:

  • the consolidation of Armstrong into John Marshall, George Wythe, and Thomas Jefferson High schools;
  • The consolidation of three elementary schools, Cary, Swansboro and Southampton into four other schools;6
  • Relocating Overby-Sheppard to Clark Springs;
  • Merging two speciality centers into two other campuses. 7

The Factors

I met with Bedden, Westbay, and Thomas Kranz, Assistant Superintendent for Support Services, to discuss how the decisions were made in terms of which schools would close and where consolidations would take place.

Bedden said, “Operations is what is eating up all the money on the academic side. It was a question for me of how do we stop the bleeding on the operational side.” The district understands that there are a lot of inefficiencies in the operating budget, including the number of buildings, capacity issues, and rezoning. These snowball into other wasted resources in areas such as transportation and staffing, specifically those required by the Virginia Department of Education’s Standards of Quality which outline the requirements that must be met by all Virginia public schools and districts.

Bedden issued a directive to Kranz to only consider certain factors as he began parsing through ways RPS could cut expenditures to balance the budget. Kranz was the only administrator present in the Facilities Task Force meetings that discussed closures–this was to ensure the committee remained impartial and to create a buffer between the Office of Superintendent and the decision-making process. He did not want to influence decisions about which schools should stay open or close based on any factors other than the criteria that was outlined. “If I start putting my emotion in, I’m human…Is it fair because I know you less? I have to go home knowing that all these faces, these bodies we are talking about are kids who at one point or another I have probably seen. They have run up and hugged me. I may not know their name anymore because I’ve passed them once. But that doesn’t matter. But if I start playing that game, I’m as guilty as past sins of being influenced by my feelings about this school or that school….You pay me to take care of all schools.”

Bedden noted it had to be a numbers game. We have to trigger the conversation by bringing the numbers up and educating people about how decisions were made, Bedden said. Specifically, Kranz outlined via email the four data points that were analyzed when determining which schools would be proposed for closure. These, plus the secondary factors, are all found in the task force’s report (PDF).

Those included:

  1. Facility condition
  2. Land availability for building additions
  3. Projected enrollments
  4. Building capacity

Rankings

To pull all this data together and make some sense of it, I created a rating system. Schools received one point for each of the following criteria based on Kranz’s information and the reports found on Richmond Forward. Schools with the most points (4) were the best candidates for closure:

  1. In need of a complete renovation/replacement to overcome functional obsolescence
  2. In need of an addition to meet program requirements, including classroom space or multipurpose space
  3. Declining enrollment
  4. Under 85% capacity according to RPS Functional Capacity

Southampton and Swansboro were the only elementary schools that met all four criteria, placing them at the top of the list for possible closure. Four schools had a score of three. Cary was the only one of those that would need an addition to meet program criteria. So, while the other three schools may need to be completely renovated or replaced, they don’t need new construction additions. Maintenance on these buildings will continue to be deferred due to lack of funding. Then, when you factor in capacity issues, it would be the difference between moving 265 kids from Cary to one other school (Carver), versus having to split up one of the other schools between several elementaries because no school in proximity had the capacity to absorb their students. One consolidation that keeps the Cary kids together seems better than splitting a school into several other existing schools. Addition needs, paired with the steep declines in enrollment and the lowest building capacity of the four, marked Cary the prime candidate for closing over Woodville, Bellevue, and George Mason.

The high school process appears to be a little different. Armstrong actually ranked the second lowest of the high schools. It has steady enrollment and is near the desired 85% capacity. It only needs moderate repairs. John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and Wythe all rank much higher, as they all have declining enrollments, under 70% capacity, and are in need of major repairs.

So, how did Armstrong end up on the chopping block? One thing that often goes unmentioned is that the Armstrong building is actually in Henrico County. Perhaps this played into the decision? Other factors that people cower from discussing include the fact that Armstrong has the largest concentration of public housing and poverty (80% overall and 100% of their African American population), the least amount of diversity (96.4% African American), the lowest achievement scores, the lowest graduation rates (80%), and a concerning attendance rate (70%). And while these weren’t officially considered in the decision, we can’t pretend they don’t matter.

Looking at each criteria separately will help us better understand how they impacted the decision-making process.

Facility Conditions

Kranz said via email that the Facilities Task Force looked at each school in the district to determine how much money would be needed to bring schools up to a base facility level. These levels were based on the four newest buildings in RPS: Oak Grove and Broad Rock Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle, and Huguenot High. Buildings were coded into four categories: complete renovation/replacement, major renovation, moderate renovation, or minor renovation.8 The results of these findings aren’t shocking when you consider that 81.4% of RPS schools are more than 20 years old, a third are more than 50 years old, and another third are more than 70 years old. Seven elementary schools were listed as needing complete renovation/replacement, including Swansboro and Southampton. According to the Capital Improvement Plan (PDF), Swansboro alone needs $800,000 in renovations over the next five years, including electrical, roof, and HVAC repairs. Compare that to the Facilities Needs Report, and Swansboro actually needs closer to $8 million dollars to meet program requirements and bring the building up to a base facility level.9 I asked Garet Prior from Richmond Forward via email about the difference. He stated that the CIP includes only those items essential to safety and health, while the full task force report includes everything from essential items to aesthetic upgrades, including windows, flooring, and lighting, which are necessary to bring the building up to base levels.

The schools that would absorb students from Swansboro and Southampton only need moderate (Redd), minor (Fisher), or no renovations (Blackwell). North of the river, Cary only needs minor renovations while Carver needs major renovations. Therefore, condition alone was not enough to put Cary on the chopping block.

As for the high schools, Armstrong only has CIP needs totaling $2.9 million and needs moderate improvements to meet base levels totaling almost $24 million. This is the least of any of the other three high schools, two of which come in over $30 million. That said, it doesn’t actually make sense to drop money into a building that isn’t actually in Richmond City.

Additions

This is an interesting piece to me. Why do buildings need additions if they’re under capacity? Kranz said via email, “We looked at whether the current school site had sufficient land available to add to the school. One of the primary assumptions of the Facilities Task Force was that new schools would be built to handle a larger enrollment. For elementary schools, we used an RPS Functional Capacity of 1,000 students, for middle schools we used an RPS Functional Capacity of 1,500 students and for the high schools we used an RPS Functional Capacity of 2,000 students.” In other words, in order to bring current buildings up to base facilities level, they had to consider whether schools who didn’t have this capacity had the available space to add additions and how much additional space would be needed for each.

Declining Enrollments

All of the proposed elementary schools have seen declining enrollments, between 8% and 12%. Cary’s decline was significantly below projections last year, and if the trend continues, Kranz said, we could see Cary fall below 200 students in the upcoming school year. The reality is, though, that 17 of the district’s 27 elementary schools have declining enrollments. Of the 10 showing growth, seven are located south of the river. North of the river, there are 13 elementary schools and one preschool program housed in the Ginter Park Annex. Of these, only two elementary schools and the preschool have shown growth. The biggest declines in the district are taking place north of the river, with seven of the 11 schools losing anywhere from 5% to 19% of their enrollment.

High schools are faring no better. All but three of the City’s high schools have declining enrollment. Huguenot, which has a brand new building, Community, which is a speciality school, and Armstrong all saw growth last year. I should mention that Armstrong’s growth was negligible, increasing by only two students. We should also mention that of the 974 students enrolled at Armstrong, over 300 are bussed in, many driving past Wythe to get to Armstrong each day. Of the remaining four high schools, three saw only between 3% and 4% declines. Thomas Jefferson, though, declined by nearly 14%, losing approximately 100 students.

There are dire consequences for dwindling districts. These declines mean decreased funding, which impacts the ability to maintain top teacher talent, as well as provide services and programming for students. But wait; there’s more!

Capacity

Capacity refers to the number of students in a building divided by the number of students a building could potentially hold based on classroom space and a standard pupil/teacher ratio. In other words, if a school has 50 classrooms and the standard is 24 kids to each classroom, the building capacity would be 1,200 kids. If I only have 600 kids enrolled, capacity is at 50%.

Let’s move to analogy…one where money is not a factor. A family has nine kids. When they purchase their home, they need a big house, one with ten bedrooms. As the first five kids grow up and move away, they don’t need that big house anymore. So, they downsize. See where I’m going with this?

Based off of RPS Functional Capacity, RPS has a total of 924 open seats in elementary schools north of the river and approximately 2,067 seats in the high schools. Interestingly enough, the south side elementaries are over capacity, with approximately 379 more students than they have seats according to their Functional Capacity. This does not mean RPS is out of compliance for state-mandated pupil-to-teacher ratios. Functional Capacity is well below state capacity numbers, and only two elementaries come anywhere close (and slightly exceed) state capacity numbers. What it does mean is that RPS’s house is too big. And since rezoning is out of their purview, this is where rightsizing a district comes in. Declining enrollments lead to school districts operating the same amount of square footage for less students. More money per student goes to operating buildings that aren’t housing anywhere near the number of students they could. Much like we may move out of our large houses once our kids move away to help cut down on utilities and decrease our mortgages, schools needs to begin the laborious task of downsizing when the kids don’t enroll, especially in times of budget crisis.

All of the proposed elementary schools are below the ideal 85% functional capacity, as are three of the four schools set to absorb students. Redd is the only one not below capacity, growing from 92.7% to 93.7% in the last two school years. Preliminary numbers show that consolidation will push Blackwell, Fisher, and Redd over 100% of functional capacity. Carver would approach 95% if Cary students were moved. Many have questioned why students wouldn’t be rerouted to a closer school, such as Fox, which Cary students would have to bypass to get to Carver. During this school year, Fox is already at 110% functional capacity. Adding an additional 250-plus kids would push them well beyond any other school’s capacity numbers. The only way to remedy that would be rezoning and, well, School Board has sole rezoning authority.

Splitting Armstrong between the three schools, assuming a straight split–which of course likely won’t happen–won’t push any school over 100%, but will push both Marshall and Wythe into the 90s, while Thomas Jefferson will still be under the 85% benchmark.

None of this is inherently bad, in fact, this is what rightsizing a district looks like. Remember that analogy above about moving to a house that is appropriate for your family based on the size of your family? Well, this is what RPS is looking to do by closing schools, moving kids into schools with space, and eliminating the empty seats to create efficiency and appropriate use of funds.

So What Now

All of this, taken together, is a lot to digest. As we look over the facts and data, we will have to make tough decisions about what we are willing to support and what we believe is right. This answer may not be the same for all of us. What we will all have to agree on is that somewhere in the budget RPS will need to find $10.7 million dollars in cuts. And as of right now, the answer to this remains to be seen.

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Read the rest of our EDU FAQ and/or come to RVANews Live and talk about it in person!


  1. Some are reporting they proposed to close four elementary schools. This is incorrect. RPS proposed Overby-Sheppard be moved to the empty Clark Springs Elementary School building. It is not being consolidated with another school. The other three schools are Cary, Swansboro, and Southampton. 
  2. Staffing cuts were proposed positions that had not yet been filled. 
  3. The rest of the $9 million is for capital improvements. 
  4. To keep from boring you with state code stuff, you can read up on this more, only if you want to feel a pop in your head…Universal Citation: Virginia Code 22.1-94 (2014) and Universal Citation: Virginia Code 22.1-115 (2014). Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 
  5. I smell a rat. 
  6. For more information about the proposal, including where the additional 6 million would come from, check out Board Docs
  7. No specific schools were named. Early guesses include moving Open to Community, which is currently at 25% capacity. 
  8. For a full description of these designations, look at this report. Full descriptions are on the last page. 
  9. We have waded through the facilities budget in EDU FAQ#004.2 but if you want to really dig into the base facilities levels, Richmond Forward has the District-Wide Educational Specifications posted, as well as the specs for each new school. 
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Teresa Cole

Teresa Cole teaches English to middle schoolers, loves to talk about all the education things and is committed to equity in public education.

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