Dayton Public Schools may close three or more of its 28 school buildings next fall because of lower enrollment, a move that would save the district money but also uproot hundreds of students and dozens of teachers.
Acting Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli told the school board Tuesday night that DPS will hold multiple community meetings in January as it develops a strategy on which schools to close, with a goal of making a recommendation to the board that same month.
Teachers union President David Romick said Wednesday that he understands and agrees with the need to close some under-enrolled schools to be fiscally responsible. But he expressed concern about the district’s ability to do it right on what he called “an extremely accelerated timeline.”
“In light of the all the unfortunate things that have gone on here in the last 12 months, they have to be careful to get community input into these decisions,” Romick said. “To show that we’re restoring trust, this can’t be: go out in the community, ask what their opinion is and do what you’re going to do anyway.”
Lolli and Associate Superintendent Shelia Burton said the majority of Dayton schools are well under capacity, pushing the cost of operating those buildings higher. Under-enrolled buildings cost up to $14,000 per student for staffing, utilities, maintenance and more, according to the district, while other schools cost less than $7,000 per student.
Wogaman, Rosa Parks and Dayton Boys Prep schools all have less than 30 percent of their classroom space occupied, according to a document presented by Burton, while Meadowdale Elementary, EJ Brown and World of Wonder schools are below 40 percent capacity. Those schools have hundreds of open classroom seats each.
“We don’t necessarily want buildings to be at 100 percent so that the rooms are crowded, but we think that we should at least get up to about 70 percent occupancy,” Burton said. “It’s cost-efficient if we get up to 70 percent.”
Without naming any specific schools, Lolli said her team’s recommendation could call for closure of more than three or less than three schools.
New school board member William Harris expressed concern about community impact because the 13 lowest-enrolled schools are all on the west side of Dayton. There was no specific mention of consolidating any of those schools.
Lolli pointed out that there are more schools in West Dayton than East Dayton (18 to 10), and most of the East Dayton schools are closer to that 70 percent capacity figure. Belmont (79 percent) and Stivers (73) are the only schools in the district over that number, while Kiser is at 69 percent, and Ruskin and Wright Brothers at 67 percent.
“The students will still be on the west side, and we still need to serve the students on the west side,” Lolli said.
She added that there are important issues of equity beyond enrollment of those schools.
“We need to try and make sure that we equalize the educational opportunities for both the west side and the east side,” Lolli said. “I think that we still have quite a number of open teaching spots on the west side, and we need to make sure that we don’t always have (substitute) teachers for our students who live in those neighborhoods.”
Dayton built almost all new schools after voters approved a $245 million bond issue in 2002, to leverage state funding. From Kiser in summer of 2006 to Wright Brothers in January 2012, the district opened 25 new school buildings.
Besides the renovated and expanded Stivers, the only DPS schools currently in use that pre-date 2006 are Valerie Elementary and the Gorman/Jackson Center site.
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The bond issue was a 28-year tax, meaning residents could be paying it for another 13 years, whether all the schools are open or not.
Dayton’s student enrollment dropped from about 20,000 in 2002 to 14,000 in 2010. Since then, it has stayed fairly steady, although the current number of 13,168 is a low point, according to Ohio Department of Education data.
Burton confirmed that 2002 enrollment projections had predicted roughly the enrollment drop DPS has experienced since. But the new schools have not lured back the 2,600 students DPS loses to private schools via voucher or the 6,800 students it loses to charter schools.
As the district weighs reconfiguring schools, geographic issues may come up again. Dayton Public Schools does not require students to attend the school closest to their home. While considering new busing plans last spring, the district considered requiring most students to attend a school within their geographic quadrant, but then pulled back on that idea. Burton said this fall that the issue may be reconsidered.
Romick said some recent DPS decisions have been rushed and not well-thought-out, pointing to the aborted 2016 layoffs based on bad financial data as an example. He said once these moves are finished, the district should aim to let educators stay in positions, learn the curriculum and get meaningful training, “to create some damn stability.”
Lolli said because the issue is underused buildings, not overstaffing, job cuts for classroom employees are not expected.
“This will be a very difficult couple of months ahead of us,” school board member John McManus said.
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