NEWS BLOG: School 16 is a bellwether

BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO

The frustration that some parents and 19th Ward residents voiced over a proposal to close School 16 may be a sign of things to come. The Rochester school board approved closing School 16 for repairs last week, but board members stipulated that it would only be temporary. Once the repairs are completed, School 16’s doors will reopen.

But by making a commitment to keep School 16 open, which could require investing at least $6 million in one of the district’s oldest buildings, the board may have made Superintendent Bolgen Vargas’s job a lot harder. Vargas is trying to prepare the community for something that hardly anyone wants to hear: some schools may have to be closed.

Vargas says he wants to have a communitywide discussion about the district’s future space needs in the face of declining student enrollment and increasing demands on the district’s budget. He is already projecting a $33 million budget gap for the 2013-2014 school year. And he’s down to searching the sofa for spare change. Vargas may have to find savings by cutting loose buildings that the district doesn’t need and can’t afford.

But after the debate over how to raise student achievement in urban schools, few things in education are as touchy as closing schools. They can resemble that old childhood game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Here, however, some students and families are left without their neighborhood school, and there’s seldom agreement over the reasons why.

Tensions build because closing a school has such wide-reaching impact on everything from staffing to transportation costs. There’s also the disruption to students, their families, and neighborhoods.

The challenge Vargas faces is developing a cohesive plan for closing schools that isn’t a piece-meal hacking off of schools. The plan has to be fair, and parents’ and residents’ concerns need to be heard. Residents in the 19th Ward were extremely concerned about closing School 16 because they said it would hurt the neighborhood. Some residents argued that about a dozen other schools are in bad shape, too, including some in the southeast neighborhoods. But closing them is never considered.

Vargas’s biggest hurdle will be convincing the community that some kind of action is needed. The community has already had a taste of school closings and reconfigurations. And it’s left many parents and residents skeptical.

Vargas may still conclude that School 16 needs to be closed permanently, that the $6 million to rehab it is better spent elsewhere.

But the community will only remember the board’s promise to keep it open.

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