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  • Writer's pictureNettie Webb

The Utilization Myth

There are three major factors motivating school closures, specifically T. C. Miller and Sandusky: a looming 7.2 million dollar deficit, future capital improvement costs, and the myth that we are grossly underutilized.

In our previous post, we mentioned that the utilization rates the district is using to justify school closures are actually low estimates and not accurate of the current situation that more directly follows the Department of Education recommendations.

This entire conversation for closures started during spring 2020. Lynchburg City Schools and city officials initiated conversations on the district’s ‘Facilities Master Plan’. At this point the city appropriated funds to hire two independent contractors to evaluate the facilities and programs.

From here, Lynchburg City Schools started the evaluation process by hiring Dominion 7, an architecture firm in Lynchburg, to analyze the condition and utilization of each school in the district. While they evaluated all buildings, their presentations to officials focused on the elementary schools since they are the priority in the first phase of the master plan.

Dominion 7 reported that many of the buildings in the city need improvements, estimating the city will need to spend between 110 to 180 million dollars in capital improvements over the next ten years. (Note: the range is large because it includes different situations from full renovations and expansions to just safety and maintenance repairs.)

In response to this, the district began considering closing schools. After Dominion 7 presented their utilization rates, this conversation continued to their MGT Educational Consulting contract.

Now, how did we get the utilization rates?

Dominion 7 took the maximum class size each room in the schools could hold for each grade, found the maximum capacity of each school, and then divided the current amount of students at each school by that number.

On the surface, this seems like sound logic, but maximum capacity is not what is recommended by the Department of Education for the ideal class size. Blair Smith, Principal architect at Dominion 7, touched on this when responding to questions from city council in March 2022.

"If I were designing the classrooms, I would not put 24 kindergarteners in a class. I would make the class 16-18 students, which is the recommendation of the Department of Education."

He follows up this comment by stating that if you used the recommended class sizes for elementary school students, you would have much higher utilization rates at each school.

Even though Mr. Smith stated this to council, in his report, what they all remember and have access to, he still stated that 80-94% is the target rate for utilization. Presenting no recommendations or analysis that discussed best practices or recommendations from the Department of Education.

We further critique their presentation of information because Dominion 7 presented overall utilization for each school and did not give any context to what that actually means for class sizes.

Based on the 2023 school enrollment data from the Virginia Department of Education correlated with the number of teachers for each grade, Bedford Hills Elementary School, the school with the second to last utilization rate, is not very underutilized.

Seen below, three of the grades have 20 or more students, and every other grade, besides first grade, aligns with the recommended class size for maximum educational achievement. (See our article on class sizes for more information on recommended class sizes.)

Bedford Hills Elementary School 2022-2023

Kindergarten – 20 students

First grade – 14 students

Second grade – 25 students

Third grade – 15 students

Fourth grade – 20 students

Fifth grade – 17 students

Excluding this relevant information and analysis based on the Department of Education has perpetrated the myth that we are very underutilized. Further, it has allowed city officials, like our council members, to believe and advocate that the school district should aim for as close to 94%, or even higher, if possible.

Council member Helgesson has repeatedly suggested to reporters and officials that the district should close and consolidate even more schools to reduce the number of buildings to “maximize efficiency and save taxpayer resources.”

Council member Faraldi also repeated the sentiment presented by Dominion 7 that we have too many buildings for the amount of students.

Along with not internalizing Mr. Smith’s statement on recommended class sizes, or understanding what class sizes actually look like, none of them knew MGT Educational Consulting recommends 85% as optimal utilization because that report was not fully presented until August 2023.

MGT explains this recommendation when they say anything above 85% “ will impact daily operations…[and] significantly impact ancillary support services such as OT (Occupational Therapy), PT (Physical Therapist), School Psychologists, Counselors, Tutoring, Literacy/Numeracy Coaches, etc.”

This is followed by MGT’s warnings that if the district does increase above 85% “any school above 90 will feel crowded and will be limited in flow, process, and procedures.”.

Why aim for utilization above 90% if anything above 90% will limit students’ educational experience and offerings? Why aren’t we aiming for 85%?

Currently, the elementary schools in the city have an average utilization of 80%. This increases to 82% if modular units are removed. Instead of closing schools, the district needs to focus on recruiting more pre-k aged students to come to the public school system over the private system.

A recruitment plan should have been the number one priority of the city when they saw a declining enrollment trend, not closing schools.

Our analysis highlighting that we are not underutilized is supported by the fact that both of the scenarios from MGT which close Sandusky Elementary School include expansions at at least three additional schools.

If we are underutilized, why are we expanding? Why are we spending millions on construction and expansions if we are facing a deficit? What happens if the city council does not appropriate the funds for expansions?

All of these questions, contradictions, and decisions made without context or knowledge of best educational practices show that the decision to close schools, including T. C. Miller and Sandusky, were not made in the best interest of students or public education.

Join us in protesting this decision. We are actively engaging in many efforts and will be sharing those on this website and our social media pages. Keep up to date with us so that you can see how to get involved.

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