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Careful which schools you close

If it's in a neighborhood with lots of renters, many of those families and schoolchildren will quickly leave.

In her column in Tuesday’s Seattle Times, editorial writer Lynne Varner offers these statistics, encapsulating the impact on enrollment of the Seattle school closures two years ago: “Of 743 students from the closed schools . . . A grand total of 154 students from the closed schools left the district.” Varner, arguing that the next round of school closures must go ahead as part of the district’s budget-cutting plan, offers these figures with relief, like someone who’s just swallowed a teaspoon full of foul-tasting medicine: That wasn’t so bad, now, was it?

Depends on how you look at it. Consider if there would be a similar enrollment drop with this round of school closures. Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson assumes closing seven buildings next year will save $3.6 million. But 154 students are worth more than $1.5 million in state and local revenue to the district.

It’s also worth looking at who the departing students might be. Back in the 1970s when Seattle Public Schools closed a bunch of buildings, the district did a study to see if families with children moved out of neighborhoods where schools were closed. The study found that people pretty much stayed put, didn’t sell their houses and run. But there was one glaring exception, a neighborhood where nearly all the children were gone within two years. That neighborhood was First Hill, the only area where a school was closed that served a community of renters. They packed up and left as soon as they could.

Which should be a cautionary note. If we make the not-unreasonable assumption that renters are more likely to be among Seattle’s low-income families, then closing schools that serve them (Van Asselt is on the current list, for example) may have the unintended consequence of driving more low-income families out of the city.

And one could dwell with some regret, or pleasure, depending on your point of view, on the fate of the building Seattle Public Schools closed on First Hill. The former Summit elementary was sold, and the building is now home to the successful, upscale private Northwest School.

Dick Lilly was a reporter for The Seattle Times and covered K-12 education there for nearly five years. He later served on the Seattle School Board from 2001-05. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com


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