The task force studying possible closure of Dayton Public Schools facilities spent as much time talking about school quality and academic performance as it did about school buildings during its first meeting Wednesday.
The group asked about teacher staffing, student performance, busing access and parent engagement, as it began the work that Acting Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli has referred to as “right-sizing” the district. The group also hopes to position DPS to increase its enrollment.
“It has to be an all-encompassing plan,” Lolli said. “It’s not just about selling off all the properties or closing buildings or tearing down four empty buildings. It’s about what’s the best decision for everyone in the Dayton Public Schools to make sure they have the highest quality of education possible.”
Not closing 9 schools
Perhaps the loudest concern in the past week has come from West Dayton residents worried that DPS would close nine schools, all in their neighborhoods. The Dayton Business Journal reported in December that the district was considering closing nine schools, and that claim has been repeated by multiple community groups.
“There is no way we can possibly close nine schools,” Lolli said Wednesday, adding that the district wouldn’t be able to properly serve the students it has today if it made that many closures.
When DPS mentioned those nine West Dayton schools — Wogaman, Boys Prep, Rosa Parks, EJ Brown, Meadowdale Elementary, Meadowdale High, World of Wonder, Westwood and the Innovative Learning Center at Jackson Center — it was to identify them as the schools currently emptiest.
But DPS officials said no decision had been made on what buildings to close or how many. It’s possible the district could shutter buildings that are not on the empty list and shift students around. DPS’ large headquarters building downtown also is significantly under-used, according to associate superintendent Shelia Burton, and Valerie Elementary needs $2 million in maintenance work, raising questions about its future.
“The data that we gave you will show (right-sizing is needed),” said task force co-chair Mohamed Al-Hamdani. “That has to be part of the conversation. But folks are really more concerned with what happens to their students, what happens to our teachers, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Task force priorities
Task force members were asked to vote on what factors should drive their recommendations if some schools need to be chosen for closure — financials or busing or individual programs housed at certain schools (for example, career tech at Ponitz, or the Miracle Makers partnership at Ruskin).
The clear top vote getter was a need for clear data on student and teaching needs. The group also said any facilities plan needs to support the district’s overall academic plan, and expressed a desire to analyze the current academic performance of each school.
That dovetailed with the guiding principles the group adopted at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting.
The top principle that the task force prioritized was assuring that high-quality, appropriately licensed staff were in place for all schools, to improve academic performance. Others near the top of the list were advancing the fiscal responsibility of the district and making racial equity a key concern in decision making.
Repositioning district facilities — the core issue that led to creation of the task force — came in behind those issues.
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Task force members asked DPS and city officials for reams of information to help them study — a map showing how many students live in each neighborhood, information on reasons students have left DPS in the past, strategic academic plans for the district and more.
DPS officials shared information on the district’s vacant land, the age and enrollment of all buildings, utility costs at under-enrolled buildings, and data on the district’s enrollment, which is projected to drop another 1,400 students, to about 11,000, over the next nine years.
The task force is now up to 18 members with the addition of NAACP education chair Lauretta Williams and Zion Baptist Church Pastor Rockney Carter, representing a group of West Dayton clergy members.
Carter asked how the public can be better informed and have their voices heard, expressing concerns about the impact of potential schools closures in West Dayton. Richard Stock, director of the Business Research Group at the University of Dayton, also emphasized that racial equity must be considered in the choices the task force makes.
The task force will tour Meadowdale Elementary, plus Valerie and Wogaman schools on Feb. 6. Then they will return to DPS headquarters for public meetings at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 20 and March 6.
Lolli said two community meetings for the task force to hear input from the public are being moved up from March to February, with dates and sites to be announced soon. The task force intends to make recommendations to the school board by April 2. Dayton’s school board will make any final decisions on school closures.
“There’s a lot of angst out there about what we’re going to do and how it’s going to be done. We have a very difficult task,” Al-Hamdani said. “Hopefully, we can make an informed decision that’s right for our students, our teachers, the community and the district.”
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