News: Disappearing Schools

Board might again change CPS construction plan

Matt Borgerding

Board President Susan Cranley (right) led a bloc that wants Superintendent Rosa Blackwell (center) to further study enrollment figures before presenting a specific plan for more school cuts.

First it was 66, then it was 64 and soon it could be 55. Due to the city's population loss and declining enrollment, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is considering further scaling back how many schools it will build over the next decade as part of its massive $1 billion reconstruction project.

Superintendent Rosa Blackwell recently proposed cutting nine schools from the 64-building plan. Some school board members, however, say even more schools might have to be eliminated because they believe Blackwell used enrollment predictions that were too optimistic.

In 2003, voters approved a $480 million bond levy as part of a $1 billion plan to renovate or rebuild 66 schools. Since then two schools, Bramble Academy in Madisonville and Losantiville School in Amberley Village, were cut from the plan due to changing enrollment estimates.

Because the board has refused to say which schools could be added to the chopping block, several neighborhood groups are worried their areas might be on the list.

'False hope'
Even residents without school-age children or who lack any direct ties to Cincinnati Public Schools still have a stake in the district's fate.

Concerns about the quality of education provided by Cincinnati Public Schools consistently rank at the top or near the top in virtually every survey about why people move away from the city. As a result, Cincinnati's tax base shrinks and causes a greater burden on residents who remain.

Also, some studies indicate that dropout rates, in part, correlate to increased crime.

Supporters of cutting more schools note that the district won't have the money to operate all of the planned buildings if enrollment drops at greater than expected levels.

Opponents of the cuts say many studies conclude students learn better when class sizes are kept low, which would require more buildings. Further, they contend that drastically changing the plan is unfair to voters who supported the bond levy.

Evanston resident Curtis Wells, a district critic, said the building plan wasn't properly reviewed at the outset and involved too much new construction.

"None of these buildings were ever declared unsafe, just old," he said.

If the full 66-facility slate isn't going to be built, residents should mount a referendum to lessen the levy amount, he said.

"If you're not going to do all 66, give the money back," Wells said.

Dozens of residents attended the board's July 10 meeting, hoping to learn which schools were proposed for elimination and watch the board vote on the issue. But Board President Susan Cranley urged more discussion about enrollment figures before any decision is made to avoid giving residents "false hope" that their schools would be spared. If enrollment estimates are too rosy, more cuts might become necessary later, Cranley said, so it's better to have a firm grip on the numbers first.

"I think that's false hope if we come up with a different number (later) and have to think out of the box and rearrange our buildings," Cranley said. "The whole board and the administration agreed that all students deserve schools in their neighborhoods. We also know that, in our role of oversight, there are tough decisions to be made."

The district's current plan calls for building 64 schools to accommodate 38,565 students by the construction project's completion in 2011. Blackwell proposes changing it to 55 schools to accommodate 34,865 students based on updated enrollment estimates.

Some board members, though, cite other studies that suggest enrollment could drop to as low as 24,000 during that period.

'Turf wars'
The school district currently serves about 39,000 students. Seventy-one percent are African-American, 23 percent are white and nearly 65 percent qualify under federal poverty guidelines.

Some board members say recent improvements in how high schools are structured, the lessening appeal of private charter schools and the district's creation of more "magnet" or specialized programs will cause the enrollment decline to be not as steep as earlier predictions.

"Just the numbers aren't the real issue," said board member Catherine Ingram. "We're going to start discussions about where schools are and where schools aren't."

"It would be sad to have schools we can't run, (but) it would be tragic to have overcrowded new schools," said board member Florence Newell.

Ingram and Newell joined board member John Gilligan in pushing for Blackwell and her administration to propose a specific plan about which schools would be cut so the board could vote.

"I am bewildered by the process here, or lack of," said Gilligan, a former Ohio governor, during the contentious July 10 meeting. "We don't have anything before us to deal with. ... Let them propose what ought to be done in the school district for the next couple of years."

But Cranley and a bloc that includes board members Melanie Bates, Eileen Cooper Reed and Rick Williams opposed the effort, defeating it 4-3.

Bates, Reed and Williams didn't comment on enrollment and building issues during the public meeting, preferring Cranley to speak for them. Ingram chastised the members for not participating, saying the majority was unnecessarily dragging out the issue.

Cranley countered that she was trying to avoid pitting one neighborhood against another when deciding cuts. Precise criteria for deciding on the cuts, including consensus on enrollment numbers, should be reached before any proposal is brought forth, she said.

"I have no desire to cause undue angst anywhere or to create what I call turf wars," Cranley said, prompting snickers from some residents in attendance.

Cranley's approach is unrealistic, Ingram said.

"You're not creating turf wars," Ingram said. "They're there. We know every neighborhood can't have a school."

What's the point of the district's construction plan if new schools will be overcrowded once they open, Ingram said.

"I refuse to build buildings where we're going to have trailers out front," she said.

"Why do we want to err on the side of not building too many?" Newell said. "I believe it's the job of the administration to bring us a plan so we can vote it up or down."

A plan on cuts could come as soon as July 17. Cranley said any decision will cause some controversy. ©

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