Seattle's school closure plan, now before the school board, is an earthquake. It’s not just a case of closing five schools. In addition to physically closing five buildings, Seattle Public Schools’ plan completely erases four other programs, scattering the students, and moves half the enrollment of the elementary and middle-school gifted programs to other buildings. Altogether, the scheme may affect more than 4,000 kids — pushing 10 percent — of the district’s 45,000 students.
Can that be good for the kids? What will their families do? How many will leave the district?
Those were among the questions that parents posed in public testimony at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, offering the obvious answers. No, that kind of disruption isn’t good for kids, especially the large number from low-income and minority families in the targeted schools. On this point, several African American parents were highly critical of district Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who is black. Adam Ellner, a student, chimed in, “This is like some domino game and the dominos at the end have no place to go except to fall down.” Ellner is a student in the accelerated progress program at Washington Middle School that would be split in half by Goodloe-Johnson’s plan.
Crucially, the question remains unanswered as to how many families will pull their children out of Seattle Public Schools if their schools are closed or they are forced to move from one to another against their will. Two years ago when seven schools were closed, 20 percent of the students directly affected disappeared from the district. So far, Goodloe-Johnson and her staff haven’t offered any estimates of what might happen this time — even though an enrollment drop of 200 to 300 students would wipe out all the short and long term savings projected from the closure plan. There’s no evidence yet that the seven-member school board is worried, or even curious, about this number.
On the budget front things have improved for the district. Governor Christine Gregoire’s budget didn’t cut education as deeply as expected, so the Seattle district’s shortfall projected last month to reach $37.1 million has dropped to $25 million. On Wednesday Don Kennedy, the district’s chief financial officer, showed the board a list of revenue increases and spending cuts to deal with that. Still included was the school closure plan, alleged to generate $3.6 million in savings in 2009-2010, though that must be offset by the $1.4 million this year and $500,000 next year the district will spend to close the buildings.
But notable among other cuts on Kennedy’s list was one change that mostly went unnoticed. Last month “central office” was slated for a $5 million cutback. Wednesday night that was quietly reduced to $4 million in a list that saw no other changes of that magnitude. Maybe when the board’s finance committee takes up budget details like that on Thursday, the fluidity of the central office numbers will raise some questions. After all, going back to $5 million in cuts, and maybe asking for another million or two in further pruning of central staff, would make it unnecessary to close schools in this chaotic, rushed fashion.
The other thing about looking at administrative staffing for budget cuts is this: You could take another $2 million, $3 million or maybe $4 million out of central office and not one family would pull a child out of Seattle Public Schools.
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