THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Schools’ count of empty seats low

More inclusive Boston tally may influence closures

Some seats were empty in a Dearborn Middle School class. There are conflicting reports on the school’s vacancy rate. Some seats were empty in a Dearborn Middle School class. There are conflicting reports on the school’s vacancy rate. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / October 20, 2010

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Boston school officials — under pressure by financial watchdogs to cut operating costs but hesitant to close schools — have not made public the full number of empty classroom seats across the city.

Their most recent tally of 5,758 empty seats counts only the excess capacity in classrooms staffed by teachers, officials said in interviews this week. It does not account for the surplus space that exists in no-longer-used classrooms or those that have been converted into storage and meeting rooms as student enrollment has dropped.

The accounting is more than an academic exercise for a district that recently proposed vacating four buildings at the school year’s end. The more empty seats there are, the more money it could be wasting on unneeded infrastructure as it confronts a potential $60 million shortfall next year, fiscal watchdogs say. The higher the number of empty seats, the more pressure leaders will be under to close more schools — a politically difficult process that riles parents, teachers, and students.

Over the past decade, enrollment has declined by nearly 8,000 students to 55,371 last fall, according to the most recent state tally.

Yet during that time, the school district has opened three new large schools and has only vacated four small buildings, potentially leaving it with more square footage than when the decade began.

City Councilor John R. Connolly, who has been seeking more transparency on school capacity, yesterday filed a public records request, under a special provision of the city charter, that would require Mayor Thomas M. Menino to provide that data along with other enrollment information to the council within seven days.

“Is the capacity issue eating up money that could be spent on programs?’’ said Connolly, who is unsure the extent to which the district needs to close schools, if any. “I don’t think we have received a clear answer.’’

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has long been hesitant about closing schools, concerned that the district may need the space in the future even though enrollment is expected to decline further into the foreseeable future as more independently run public charter schools open.

Earlier this month, Johnson presented a proposal to the School Committee that calls for vacating three small school buildings and the sprawling Hyde Park Education Complex at the school year’s end. However, Johnson has said she is interested in eventually reopening the Hyde Park campus.

Michael Goar, the school district’s deputy superintendent, said yesterday that the district is developing its strategy to balance next year’s school budget and hoped the number of school closures was on target.

“It’s very difficult for students, parents, and staff,’’ Goar said of the school closures, which have sparked protests. “I’m hoping we got it right and I’m hoping we don’t have to do another closure next year.’’

School officials declined yesterday to fulfill a Globe request made a week ago for an estimate of the district’s overall capacity that would encompass empty classrooms, saying they needed more time to refine internal numbers.

The variation in how much space is available in a building can be striking in some instances when data comes to light.

A case in point is the Dearborn Middle School, located in a nearly 100-year-old building in Roxbury.

In June, as part of a districtwide report on building use, school officials told the City Council that 79 percent of the 365 seats at the Dearborn were occupied by students, while the rest were empty.

But school officials told the Massachusetts School Building Authority last November, in an application seeking millions of dollars for a massive renovation of the Dearborn, that the building could accommodate 675 students and only 41 percent of the building was being utilized.

Goar said yesterday that he did not know why there would be “such a huge deviation’’ between the reports. “I would have to look at why,’’ he said.

José Duarte, the Dearborn principal, said he was surprised to see 675 students listed in the school building authority application when shown a copy this week.

“That’s an absurd number,’’ Duarte said. “Children need elbow space.’’

He said the school has been planning for enrollment between 500 and 550 students. A tour of the school this week revealed some empty classrooms and some classrooms with fewer than a dozen students because of class size limits set for special education students.

Conflicting enrollment data for the school, which was declared underperforming by the state this year, are among several reasons holding up the state’s school building authority from conducting a feasibility study for a potential project.

“We feel the building would be a great new thing for the neighborhood, but we want to make sure when you turn the lights on the teachers are there, the curriculum is in place, and the students will come,’’ said Katherine Craven, the building authority’s executive director.

School officials have justified the amount of space in use, saying that growth in specialized programs aimed at addressing an array of academic needs of inner-city students is taking over classrooms once occupied by traditional subjects.

But in February, John McDonough, the school district’s chief financial officer, warned the School Committee that the city needed to close schools to prevent more draconian cuts. At that time, the district projected roughly 4,500 empty seats, each one costing the district $4,000.

Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said it would have probably behooved the school district, given the emotionally divisive issue of closing schools, to conduct an independent audit of its buildings to gauge how much space is truly needed. But it now needs to move aggressively to close schools to minimize cuts to classrooms in the upcoming school year.

“Trying to achieve cuts out of classrooms would be devastating,’’ Tyler said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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