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Seattle school closure plan, due Tuesday, still doesn't add up

The savings are small, and the closures seem arbitrary, but still the sense of panic over a budget gap is driving the plan.
Montlake Elementary School.

Montlake Elementary School. Seattle Public Schools

On Tuesday Seattle Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson will release her final school closure plan, following two months during which options were offered and withdrawn and the overall impression was that no clear rationale or vision for the district was driving the closure plan. Really, that’s about it. The bottom line seems to be a sense of panic about closing a $37.1 million budget gap for next year, of which the $3.6 million allegedly to be saved by closing six schools looks like good money until you consider two things:

One, for next budget year, according to the district, the net after closing costs is only $1 million saved. (Yes, not closing schools beginning next fall creates a bow-wave deficit in 2010-2011 but it buys time to develop a new assignment plan which might change the landscape.)

And two, there is no calculation for loss of revenue to account for families pulling their children out of the district. (SPS with a budget of $550 million-plus for next year and a current enrollment of 45,000 therefore spends about $12,000 per student, the revenue for which is all ultimately enrollment based, so the loss of even a few hundred students is significant.) After the round of closures two years ago, 20 percent of students enrolled in closed schools left the district.

In fact, it’s bizarre that the rough cut for next year’s district budget includes $1 million in new revenue for enrollment increases. Of course, that’s based on the district’s own projections that elementary school enrollment is already rising and that middle and high school enrollment will rise in subsequent years. So despite their own enrollment projections, district officials paradoxically propose immediate school closures.

Lots of families out there probably hope that Dr. Goodloe-Johnson will announce on Tuesday that the district is dropping closures for now, so schools and communities can stop fighting each other and participate in a real planning process. Just in case she doesn’t, here are ten reasons that the district should stop this train.

1. The “plan” is not simple. It’s not clear why one school should close and not another. Some schools in high-demand neighborhoods such as Montlake Elementary are on the chopping block.

2. Other cost-cutting proposals have not been developed to the same degree. For example, there’s no detail on what a $5 million “central office" cut means. Could it be more?

3. The district has imposed a hiring freeze to save an estimated $2 million, but is that enough to stave off significant teacher layoffs? Would school closings that net only $1 million in savings make a difference in that? What is the balance between teacher and central office layoffs? The figures aren’t out there for discussion yet.

4. There is no new student-assignment plan and the district expects to develop one afterward. This inverts the proper order of long-range planning and means there’s no underlying rationale for possible savings in busing costs, or limitations on choice that might be part of a future plan.

5. Overall building-use plans do not include likely considerable expansion of pre-K programs, a priority of the Obama presidency. With schools closed, there are fewer sites for such programs, and they’re farther from the homes of families who need them.

6. Two of the supposed criteria for closing schools — building condition and academic achievement — should have nothing to do with closure choices since they are the result of district neglect, also called programming “priorities,” and even outright mistakes in hiring principals.

7. The closure plan does not respond to parent demand for more K-8 schools as opposed to large middle schools. And, specifically, it means all but two of the existing and proposed K-8s are in North and West Seattle, leaving Southeast Seattle underserved — again.

8. Co-housed programs (a school building with two different programs such as “neighborhood elementary” and Accelerated Progress Program) which Dr. Goodloe-Johnson has proposed for three or four buildings have a limited but problematic track record. For example, Madrona neighborhood parents spent a decade battling and finally driving APP out of their building.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Dick, for a calm voice of reason in this madness. A new online petition opposing the plan got over 800 signatures in one weekend. Below is a link to the petition and a portion of the text.

http://www.petitiononline.com/espvsn/petition.html

The proposal is rushed and ill-conceived. It lacks clear explanations of its choices and hard data to justify them. In many places, it contradicts the district's goals, guiding principles, and codified policies. It will further erode trust in our schools and drive even more of our families out of the district or to private schools (Seattle already has one of the highest private-school enrollment rates in the nation). The proposal also lacks critical information from the district's Functional Capacity Analysis (which will not be released until Jan. 13, 2009), and the new school assignment plan (which will not be completed until 2010).

We acknowledge that the district is facing budget challenges. We also affirm that it is the right and responsibility of the superintendent to be a good steward of our public funds, and to manage capacity in our schools. However, this proposal is fundamentally flawed.

Whitehorn

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Many of the points that have been made in this article resonate with many of us.

My concern is about closing schools in the Central District and Capitol Hill areas. According to demographic studies, there will be an influx of families into these areas within the next few years. These neighborhoods will need more schools, not less.

If Nova is moved, there will be an abandoned building taking up an entire block that will stand vacant until the School Board determines its' fate. If it is decided that the property is to be sold, with the economy the way it is now, it will take two or three years to negotiate and sell.That could be 2-4 years with yet another abandoned, fenced-in building in the Central Distrcit and across frm Garfield High School. Not a good solution for the neighborhood or the Nova school.

It is also obvious that no one has taken the time to work out the cost of taking an existing school that was designed to hold one school and remodel it to accomodate two schools equitably. There would need to be two main offices, two sets of teachers lounges and teachers offices. The cost of remodeling a school so that it functions properly for two completely different programs can be significant and probably as much as the cost to either renovate an existing school such as Nova or construct another building. If the school board decides that it is too costly to remodel a school to accomodate two school programs, then no one would benefit from the move.

Looking at the proposal for the central,southeast and Montlake areas, it is obvious that much was not taken into consideration. I think that it is a knee jerk reaction to simply think that closing schools would be an appropriate long term solution to this financial situation.

Taylor

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Dick Lilly, Thank you for your analysis and comments.
The link below developed by a parent supports your case against the proposed school closures and changes:
http://andrehelmstetter.com/capmanan/capacity_management_proposal_analysis.html

The article below indicates a plan for 5,000 new units of housing at Yesler Terrace and again spotlights questions regarding the School District doing a good job of enrollment projections in the Central Cluster.
http://www.realchangenews.org/2008/2008_12_17/YeslerTerrace_v15n52.html
While most of your comments and analysis are helpful and correct your advocacy regarding increasing the number of K-8 schools doesn't really make sense. There is no evidence that demand exceeds the number of seats available. In fact, many have openings. TOPS is one of the few that often has a waiting list, mainly at the elementary level. K-8s offer an important alternative to comprehensive Middle Schools for many, but the good comprehensive Middle Schools continue to be the overwhelmingly popular choice offering a majority of students great educational opportunities. Again K-8 does offer an important alternative for many but should not be promoted as the main choice.

joannac

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 11:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Well said, Taylor. The proposal is a crazy-quilt sewn by staff working in silos, and to really mangle the farm metaphor, the board must sift the wheat from the chaff. And avoid the manure.

Check out this detailed, but very accessible, analysis by Meg Diaz:
http://andrehelmstetter.com/capmanan/capacity_management_proposal_analysis.html

Whitehorn

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 1:37 p.m. Inappropriate

The plan is unduly complex. Something should be done - to add capacity where needed and reduce it where there is excess - but simple changes would suffice.

Instead of asking Thornton Creek to simultaneously transform from a K-5 to a K-8, absorb two schools of new students, and relocate, it would be better if the District went back to the original idea, left Thornton Creek alone, and repurposed Jane Addams as a neighborhood K-8 with an attractive signature program like language immersion or traditional math.

The closures of T T Minor and Meany are fine, along with the relocation of north-end middle school APP to Hamilton. Those are all straight forward and make sense. The weird Montlake to Lowell to Thurgood Marshall parley makes no sense and accomplishes nothing. Scrap it. It doesn't represent an urgent condition. The District should hold off on splitting elementary APP until they have a north-end location for the north-end program. Then they can create a north-end program and a south-end program and re-purpose Lowell.

It's goofy to put Van Asselt into the AAA building. It's a waste of a K-8 building for a K-5 school, it plays hell with the reference areas for Van Asselt and Wing Luke to be so close together, and who wants a 600-student elementary school? Instead, The New School should move into the AAA building - the size, configuration, and location all suit The New School perfectly.

The District could then close Aki Kurose and open a new middle school in the South Shore building. A new middle school with a new principal and staff could create a new culture for themselves. They could become the middle school that the southend neighborhood wants.

The Pathfinder to Cooper move is a good choice for Pathfinder and to reduce excess capacity in West Seattle. The District needs to create some attractive programs in the south end of West Seattle. An elementary Spectrum program would be a good place to start.

And the District needs to find a new home for Summit. Something centrally located such as Lincoln, John Marshall, Lowell, or Meany. Meany would be a good choice. Find another home for the S.B.O.C. (Lincoln, Aki Kurose, Lowell, Thurgood Marshall) and leave NOVA where they are. They have the cheapest school in the district right now so it makes no budgetary sense to change what they are doing.

coolpapa

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

One more reason not to close schools - with the economy in such bad shape, fewer families will be able and willing to shell out $15k+ every year for private schools. There will also be less funds available for financial aid.

Sean

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 4:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Dick Lilly said:
It will be tough for the school board to claim they’ve got answers to all these questions by the time they take a final vote on closures at the end of the month.
--------------
The SPS Board rarely if ever claims to have answers but that never prevents a vote which often is unanimous. Check Denny/Sealth Mega-school. Check the last two math adoptions. Check __________ and ____________ .
--------------
The district in most matters rarely claims to have answers ... I hardly expect answers on closures but I do expect a vote.

Hey I've learned ... it does not need to make any sense ..because its the Seattle Schools.

Posted Mon, Jan 5, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

$15k+ is right. From http://www.bush.edu/admissions/journey.asp:

Tuition for 2008-09
Kindergarten - Second Grade is $17,230
Third - Fifth Grade is $17,975
Sixth - Eighth Grade is $22,355
Ninth - Twelfth Grade is $23,420

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 12:36 a.m. Inappropriate

coolpapa,

Pathfinder moving into the Cooper School Building would be good for Pathfinder, but bad for West Seattle. First of all the students from Cooper would be forced to go to schools with worse academics. Secondly, It leaves no elementary seats North of SW Morgan St. Laffayette, Schmitz Park, and Alki are all at capacity, as is Sanislo just south of Cooper. Cooper has the most seats open because it is the 2nd largest elementary in West Seattle and has the smallest reference area. Cooper was filled when it opened in 1998. The School Board redrew the reference area and assigned the southern area to Sanislo which is now overcapacity. The new area they assigned to Cooper was Harbor Island and the West Seattle Golf Course. Don't forget the High Point redevelopment which has temporarily removed a couple hundred elementary students from the area. People are just moving into the new homes.

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

I should preface my comments by saying that I always considered Dick Lilly to be the clearest thinker and most level-headed director during his tenure on the school board. He's a wonderful advocate for education in this city. And I think he makes some good points in this article (and in his two related articles).

What he doesn't do, though, is describe how he would close the large, persistent, structural budget gap the school district faces, a significant portion of which stems from facility utilization and (related) transportation costs. I doubt the superintendent wants to close schools for the heck of it -- what could be worse than breaking up a community? -- but Seattle Schools' facility usage is so out of whack that it has to be confronted. Mr. Lilly has known this for years, and it would be helpful to hear him describe how we might confront it, rather than simply oppose the efforts of those who are trying.

Consider these numbers. In 1968, the district operated 117 buildings to serve about 97,000 students. By 2006, it was still operating 94 buildings, but enrollment had dropped to about 46,000 students!

As a result, every time the district sent someone to Olympia for increased state funding over the last few years, the first words out of Rep. Helen Sommers' mouth were: "Please start by telling me what schools you have closed". All that Rep. Sommers was suggesting is the same kind of competent stewardship of state money that all of us would apply to our own money. Say what you will, but that's her duty as a legislator.

With that backdrop, the question is how to proceed? It's terribly painful to close an existing school, even if we relocate the program. So we all know this won't be easy. But it's just irresponsible to look at the numbers -- with facilities remaining nearly constant over four decades while enrollment has been halved -- and honestly say that no buildings need be closed. Please, Mr. Lilly, take on this challenge, and help Seattle Schools move forward.

_Jim

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I have another view to offer up regarding the WS moves under the current capacity management process.

In addition to the redrawing of boundaries, Cooper seems to have some actual physical barriers posed by its location to creating a good reference area. Pathfinder K-8 is a school that draws equally from the entire quadrant so it doesn't rely on a reference area. It is a program equally accessible to all families in WS that choose it, making it an equitable move. What if Pathfinder K-8 moves its solid program into the Cooper building making it even stronger and it becomes a school similar to Salmon Bay in Ballard in its attraction to students and families? Would WS want that kind of option in its community?

What if Cooper families then work to get their children to have first option after siblings to the school of their choice in WS including Pathfinder K-8? (I think all students displaced in this process should have this option.) I'm not sure what the Cooper community might prefer, being moved together or having a choice at any school, but it's something to think about. There are some seats in even full schools in every grade at the end of the year.

In 2010, the assignment plan changes and shifts some the the pressure on WS N. cluster schools back to the neighborhood schools. From data I've encountered, there are many S. cluster families choosing N. cluster schools (one of the reasons they are so full). In the meantime, all of WS works to get a Spectrum/ALO option in the S. Cluster of WS (maybe Roxhill or Arbor Heights) further reducing pressure on Layfette, a N. cluster school.

It seems that though a challenge to make the transitions in the next 2 years, could this scenario ultimately not be an improvement to educational opportunities in the WS quadrant?

4ninos

Posted Thu, Jan 8, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Only in the semi-surreal world of schools would there be claims that closing facilities doesn't reduce costs. I guess Starbucks, Macy's, Dell, etc. all close facilities thinking their costs will increase. I was also a PTA treasurer and knew one school's costs intimately. It does, in fact, take money to heat, light and maintain the building.
I "get" that some people may point to the fact that closing their school causes significant dislocation. I don't know the details; they may be right. But the main thrust seems to be "does the District save money?" and "should it be closing schools at all?"
The subtler counter-argument is that the district loses funding as students choose to go to private schools. Fair enough. A rationale explanation from the district would say: "We think we will 'lose' x students and 'y' dollars".
But I don't buy at all that geographic proximity is "it". If so, why is TOPs overenrolled?
Also consider the high schools. Garfield, Roosevelt and Ballard are overenrolled. Kids commute to get to all three schools. In fact, they fight to get in. The reverse is not true for Rainier. The same applies to some elementary schools with waiting lists. Our kids' school was underenrolled; we improved the academics drastically; students started to sign up from outside our region. Hmm, just like private schools, parents will "pay", in the form of "transportation", for better schools?
I also am involved with a program that works with low-income students at two schools. We simply cannot "afford" to expand to Rainier since the population is so small. We cannot supply 0.4 of a person.
I personally think that keeping floundering schools open makes no sense. Closing MLK, for instance, made sense. It had weak academics; a lousy building; and really low attendance. Conversely, nearby schools (Montlake, McGilvra, Stevens) are fully enrolled, plus. Which schools are keeping students "paying" students in the district?
I think 110% of the dialog should be about: How do we make the academics and extracurriculars of the schools compelling for all students. I think it's pretty obvious (laurelhurst, mcgilvra, stevens, ballard, garfield, roosevelt, eckstein, TOPS) that creates schools that both supply a good education AND keep students in the district. Much as I wish that say Rainier, because of heritage or location, supplies a strong education or keeps students in the district -- it doesn't. I think you have to nourish your successes, learn from them, etc. If folks like Starbucks and Dell are closing facilities; MSFT is backing off its Lake Union expansion, etc; it's a bit odd to me to think the district can't think about trying to rationalize its cost structure and invest in academics, not infrastructure. I simply wish there was this much "fervor" about increasing minority applications to college; a great math/science curriculum; or any other academic goal that you believe in.

whsy82

Posted Tue, Jan 13, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Hmm-- 800 signatures, eh. That's probably within the number of families who will be affected. With schools and school choice there are always hard decisions to be made. The maddest and loudest people are those with schools on the chopping block. And those who don't want to send their kids to school in the Central District or White Center...

I agree that it's an inconvenience and a worry to send your kid to a faraway school in a neighborhood you wouldn't dare live in, but some of these closures do make sense. At least for me. But at the same time, there's like a jillion other things that could be cut. Someone has mentioned administrative salaries/positions (heh). I think so-called "alternative programs" need a look-see. I have a bright but lazy and underacheiving teenager who thinks he won't have to do any work at Nova -- and he's right -- their test scores are under 70 percent in English and 40 percent in mathematics. That school should be a private school anyway, IMHO. Second -- what's with the all-city bussing for the under and overacheivers? School choice should be about your own transportation.

Posted Sat, Jan 24, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Everyone talks about giving Cooper students first choice at Pathfinder or other schools in West Seattle. Pathfinder has no bi-lingual support and 1/3 of Cooper students are English Language Learners.
The only school that matches Cooper's academic success with open seats in Arbor Heights, 15 minutes by car, at least 30 by school bus.
Genesee Hill Building is in terrible shape, but even many Pathfinder parents have spoken out against disbanding Cooper Elementary.
The proposed assignment plan for Cooper students is a joke. Schmitz Park 11, Lafayette 5, Alki 3, Sanislo 35, all these schools are at capacity now and send kids to Cooper. The bulk will go to Gatewood and West Seattle, schools that are much worse academically.

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