FEW things rile a community like proposed school closures. That's true when the targeted school is the only one in a town, and it's just as true when the school is one of many within in a city.
Today's economic climate is forcing the issue in cities and towns throughout Oklahoma. In the last few years, schools have had to close because they simply couldn't afford to open the doors in lean budget times, as The Oklahoman's Vallery Brown pointed out in an article Wednesday. The same is likely to prove true in 2011, where even major districts like Tulsa, Midwest City-Del City and Lawton are looking to close schools to save money.
Certainly none of the districts would characterize their plans as quick fixes. Tulsa has been engaged in a months-long process to develop a school closure and consolidation plan while Mid-Del has been warning patrons for months that a financial day of reckoning was ahead. But the changes will have long-term effects, and the fact those changes are being made in a time of crisis is as worrisome as it is unsurprising.
School districts would be so much better off to tackle the tough work of managing demographic changes when they aren't staring at a state budget cut. Then, officials would have more time to investigate the data and allow stakeholders to have their say and participate in the planning process. That so rarely happens.
The Oklahoma City district faced horrible voter support when civic and business leaders, parents, educators and the community at large embarked on a more than yearlong process to improve schools, which included more than a dozen school closures. The MAPS for Kids plan was the result of that work and represented much more than a piecemeal plan. Nearly every city school that remained open was promised renovations to make way for new students. But such comprehensive plans are near impossible when they're a reaction to the sort of fiscal crisis schools say they now face.
Tulsa officials may close as many as 17 schools before next school year. A final decision is expected in early May, although officials have acknowledged some of the changes might be phased in. Mid-Del officials are trying to sell two schools that have been targeted for closure, and Lawton wants to sell at least one of two schools it plans to close. Those are major changes on a short timeline, especially considering the personnel and transportation changes that likely will be necessary.
The demographic changes facing the school districts have been years or even decades in the making. Closings schools is never easy. But it makes a lot more sense to plan and act as time goes on instead of waiting until the choices are bad and worse.