After much debate and months of community organizing to keep Steuart Hill Academic Academy open, the Maryland State Board of Education voted late Tuesday to uphold a decision to close it.
The decision ends an impassioned appeal process waged by parents and community advocates after the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners voted in January 2022 to close the Southwest Baltimore elementary school at the end of this academic year.
Parents urged the state school board in an appeal Tuesday morning to overturn the city’s decision or allow the school more time to increase its enrollment before closing it for good. The city has argued that schools don’t operate efficiently with low enrollment and that dilapidated school buildings are too costly to maintain. The city schools website lists Steuart Hill’s enrollment at 137 students.
Parents and neighborhood activists argued in their appeal that the closure would force small children, some as young as 6, to commute farther to school each day and potentially wade through dangerous city blocks in the process. Some families don’t have access to cars, they argued, and the city school system doesn’t have its own bus line.
Theresa Concepción, a Baker Donelson attorney who represented parents in the appeal, initially said Wednesday morning that there were no additional legal routes available to her clients. Then Concepción learned from reading the state board’s opinion that her clients have the ability to appeal, though she was not hopeful about their chances.
During Tuesday’s appeal, Concepción encouraged the state board to view the argument through an emotional lens rather than a purely legal one. She asked members how they would feel if their children were forced to walk longer to school in a neighborhood with a high volume of vacant and abandoned homes.
“This isn’t a court of law,” she said. “These parents deserve more than this board throwing up its hands.”
Jena Frick, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Department of Education, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning. State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury serves as secretary-treasurer of the board.
In its decision, the state board wrote that the appellants failed to present evidence disputing the city’s board’s legal reasoning behind the decision. But board members also urged the local board to work with city public schools staff and other city agencies to address “walking route safety concerns” raised by parents and community members.
Board member Shawn D. Bartley — in an opinion that both concurred with the decision and dissented from it — wrote that while the process followed by the local board was technically “correct,” he did not support the closure of another city school.
“The silence of unanimity of the State Board in most legal decisions suggests that all the board members are fine with Baltimore City school closures as long as the legal procedural method is followed accurately,” Bartley wrote. “I am not fine with it.”
Bartley argued that the board of commissioners has not looked at enough alternative ways to keep low-enrolled schools from closing. “This does not sit well with me,” he wrote.
In a statement, city schools spokesman André Riley referred to Steuart Hill’s closure as unavoidable.
“Unfortunately, our options are often limited by the State’s historic and chronic underfunding of City Schools’ facilities. Yet we are fully committed to adding enhanced programming at the schools that will receive Steuart Hill’s students, which will be more robust when schools are combined,” the statement said.
He added that the school system will soon have updates to share with parents and community members about what steps city agencies are taking to provide safer walking routes. In an email, he told The Banner that the school system has also been working with the city’s transportation department to implement traffic calming measures at certain intersections.
Speaking before the state board Tuesday, Claude de Vastey Jones, the Columbia-based attorney representing the city school board, said even though some take issue with the closure decision, it doesn’t violate the law or invalidate city code. She said the board carefully considered student enrollment, the building’s condition, distance to the new schools and financial considerations before rendering its vote.
“This is unpopular, however, the city board went to great lengths to review this,” she said. “The appellants may disagree with the decision, and that is not unreasonable. But that does not make the decision illegal or unreasonable.”
The Baltimore school board has closed several schools in the last two decades, a consequence of plunging population numbers. One of those schools is Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School, another Southwest Baltimore institution. That school, less than a mile away from Steuart Hill, shuttered before the 2017-18 school year.
Board members and school system administrators say small schools can’t run as effectively since they typically are funded on a per-child basis. This means lower-enrolled schools will not have access to the same classes, teachers or programming as higher-enrolled schools.
State school board member Susan J. Getty asked de Vastey Jones for examples of programming smaller schools may miss out on if they continue to operate. De Vastey Jones cited aviation and honors algebra classes as two examples, which Concepción argued were not relevant to elementary school children.
Getty then pointed out that the two schools that Steuart Hill students could transfer into nearby had higher ratings than the contested elementary school, which she said she hoped parents would consider when they thought about the possibility of a closure.
Steuart Hill is a designated community school, which means it receives funding to provide extra support and social services to students. Concepción argued Tuesday that Steuart Hill also provided after-school programming to children, which other area schools lacked.