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The incredible shrinking district 

When the city school district held a series of public forums last fall to put together a list of school-closing criteria, almost nobody showed.

That surprised officials at the time, but no one's surprised by the amount of attention being paid now that those criteria are being implemented.

Facing permanently declining enrollment, the district embarked on a process to discern how much space it will need --- and where --- for the foreseeable future.

Last fall, as part of that "facilities modernization" process, the district appointed a School and Community Advisory Committee to establish the building-closure criteria and apply them to the city's elementary schools. The committee reported back to the district's Joint Facilities Modernization Board and released results to local media outlets at a press conference last Wednesday.

Those results --- the recommendation that 16 schools in 15 buildings be considered in the next round of closings --- sparked plenty of reaction from district parents and the teachers' union. (Phone calls to Rochester Teachers' Association President Adam Urbanski weren't returned for this article.) Chief among the criticisms: the district didn't include academic performance as a criterion.

But when the committee first released the draft criteria to City Newspaper in November (see "Closing time for city schools," November 17, 2004), academic performance made the list.

Board member Rob Brown says he doesn't know when it was taken off the list or by whom, but he does know why.

"We're talking about facility utilization, and that's different from students, staff, and academic programs," he says. "We're now formally --- and properly --- separating them."

That's a theme taken up again and again by people involved in the process. Lesley Johnson, a parent rep on the committee, explained why she welcomed the distinction between buildings and programs.

"I was very pleased in learning that only buildings will be closed, but certain programs that are in certain schools will be able to be moved and kept intact," she says. "As a parent that was a concern of mine, and I know there are many other parents who are going to have that same concern."

Perhaps with that in mind, Johnson urged parents to seek accurate information as an antidote to panic.

"I just hope that they come and ask questions at the meetings that the district's having," she says.

Right from the start, district officials have tried to emphasize the distinction between closing schools and ending programs. Brown first addressed this at an August board committee meeting that launched the district's long-term planning process --- and short-term school closings plan (see "Lesson plan," August 11, 2004).

The fact that this year's school-building closures are part of a larger, long-term facilities overhaul played a role in the decision to ignore academic achievement, explains another participant.

"We consciously did not look at achievement, because buildings and student achievement are two very different things," says Bill Sullivan, who sat on the advisory committee.

"Some people say 'School 23 is a high-achieving school.' Sure it is. No question about it. But that doesn't change the fact that it's on a small site that's got some serious constraints and needs X number of dollars put into it and has Y percentage of kids from the neighborhood and Z economic reuse possibilities."

Critics of the recommendations have also complained that releasing a list of far more schools than will actually be closed amounts to an unwarranted scare tactic.

Approaching the problem with the long-term facilities plan in mind, Sullivan offers a different perspective.

"In essence what we did was take 24 schools off the table," he says. "I think the committee put together a pretty solid analysis of what the criteria should be for determining whether a school is more likely to need to be closed than others. This is all premised on the fact that we have a ton of extra seats."

The district's school buildings have space for 46,709 students, but only slightly more than 35,000 are enrolled. That number is projected to shrink to about 28,000 during the next decade, according to school officials.

"So something's gotta be closed," Sullivan says. "This is not just us saying 'Let's go out and close 15 schools.' We tried to give the board and superintendent some flexibility."

That push for flexibility led to another important decision:

"The committee felt strongly about not giving a ranked list to the facilities modernization board and superintendent," says Chief Planning Officer Jana Carlisle, who's a leader in the process. That decision shows the committee recognizes the complexity of the task, she says.

"You all know the district is not going to close 16 schools," Carlisle told a row of expectant TV cameras at the outset of last Wednesday's press conference. But while it's not likely that many schools will be closed this year, the committee's recommendations are intended to stand well into the future. Asked how permanent they are, Sullivan responded, "We believe that this will inform the district for the next several years."

That doesn't mean, though, that every school on the list will be shuttered by the time the facilities plan runs its course, he adds. The geographic distribution of buildings throughout the city is one example Sullivan gives: "Almost all the schools in the Southeast are on there, but they're not gonna close all those schools."

Right now, though, few people outside Central Office are thinking about long-term overhauls; anxiety is focused on which schools will be closed this year. Already parents and community groups are organizing "save our schools" campaigns.

But if there are any schools that are definite targets for closure this year, the district isn't tipping its hand. The official line is that Superintendent Manny Rivera's staff will take the recommendations as a starting point, and then conduct further study before culling the list down to a final one to present to the school board next month.

Even the length of the list is unknown. Figures ranging from one to five buildings (and even 10) have been batted about. But given the complexity of the decisions they're faced with, district officials say that's idle speculation.

"There are certain deep kinds of analyses that have to be undertaken to look at capacity in a particular zone, to look at how students might be dispersed and absorbed into and among school sites," says Carlisle. "That's why we've been loathe to give out a number, because there's a lot of different ways this could play out."

The district is holding three public hearings on the advisory committee's recommendations (each runs from 6 to 8 p.m.): Thursday, February 3, at Frederick Douglass Preparatory School, 940 Fernwood Park; Monday, February 7, at James Madison High School of Excellence, 200 Genesee Street; Wednesday, February 9, East High School, 1801 East Main Street. Call 262-8363 to sign up to speak. Child care for children 3 and older will be available. Info: www.rcsdk12.org.

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