There’s a case to be made for closing a few Seattle schools. Saying no to all closures and program moves ignores realities — and opportunities — that have existed since well before the current hyperventilating about budget shortfalls became the rationale for the final plan Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson released last week. No one can blame the groups of alarmed parents that have formed to defend their children’s schools from proposals that seem capricious and bureaucratic.
But not everything in Goodloe-Johnson’s plan is bad, though most of it is. The worst part of her plan is what she hasn’t proposed, the opportunities missed that are more likely to strengthen Seattle Public Schools than what the superintendent offers. And it’s those latent opportunities that should make the school board pause.
The seven-member board has three options available. First, they can follow Goodloe-Johnson's plan. Since school boards have a strong built-in bias to accept the leadership of the superhero they’ve hired to “save” or “rebuild” their district, this is likely. Reinforcing this tendency is the bleak economy and budget outlook. This behavior was epitomized last week at a budget work session where, as quoted in a P-I story by Keri Murikami, board member Cheryl Chow admonished her colleagues, saying, "The experts [meaning Goodloe-Johnson and her staff] have been at the table and they have been pounding these numbers and living in this (budget) squeeze every day." At the other pole is board member Mary Bass who sounds as though she opposes all closures.
Chief among these restructuring ideas is the superintendent’s proposal to send half the enrollment in gifted programs at the Lowell Elementary building and Washington Middle School to other buildings. The result would be four buildings (instead of one, Washington) in which the accelerated progress program (APP) would split the space with neighborhood school programs. The history of buildings with split programs has been one of conflict, two separate programs under one principal grumbling about the division of scarce resources. The problem continues today at Washington.
In their lobbying to head off an adverse vote, APP parents, a well-organized and influential group, are reminding board members of the conflicts when APP shared Madrona elementary with the neighborhood program. To end that dispute and strengthen both programs, then-Superintendent John Stanford moved APP to the Lowell building and, despite community objection, dispersed the Lowell kids to other Capitol Hill and Central Area elementaries. Positively, the move also created Madrona K-8.
There’s not a lot more in the “do no harm” agenda because of the way any school closure plan that moves programs interlocks like a Rubik’s Cube. But here are some variations the board could suggest:
1. Move the Pathfinder K-8 program, closing its current home, the Genesee Hill building in West Seattle, to the Cooper building on Pigeon Point north of South Seattle Community College. This would disperse the Cooper enrollment of 300 to other West Seattle elementaries, but it has the advantage of strengthening a K-8 program and is the least harmful item on Goodloe-Johnson’s list because of that.
2. More harmful because of its impact on the Central area, the board could disperse Meany Middle School students and do as Goodloe-Johnson suggests, move the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC) from the Old Hay building on Queen Anne Hill and NOVA Alternative High School from the Mann building near Garfield into Meany. Old Hay and Mann, both old buildings that the district has allowed to deteriorate, would close
3. Still more harmful to the Central Area, the board could follow the superintendent's plan and close T. T. Minor Elementary, dispersing the 206 students there.
4. Also harmful because it kills a program without providing an alternative that would strengthen the district, the board could go ahead with the proposal to close Van Asselt Elementary, moving the school’s nearly 500 kids into the new building now occupied by the African American Academy. The AAA program would end, with approximately 350 students dispersed.
5. An adventurous board could also resurrect one option Goodloe-Johnson took off the table, closing the Pinehurst building in the Northgate area and ending the Alternative School #1 (AS#1), an alternative K-8 housed there. AS#1 has underperformed and is subject to No Child Left Behind federal sanctions.
Those actions close all five of the schools Goodloe-Johnson has on her current list plus one, and the impact isn’t small. About 3,000 students would be moved or dispersed, but it’s less than half the 6,000-plus who would be affected by the superintendent’s additional plans to close, split, or move other programs. Thus the board has the option of minimizing the Goodloe-Johnson plan’s impact by focusing narrowly on closures — which is what this is supposed to be about — and discarding the superintendent’s over-reaching add-ons. This approach also has the advantage of minimizing the impact on special education programs, many more of which suffer relocation under the superintendent’s plan. And, of course, the board can stop anywhere between one and five or six schools as it might choose.
But there is a third path the board could take by delaying the whole plan for a year. The cost of delay wouldn’t be that high. In the district’s current proposal the net savings from closing five school buildings for the 2009-2010 school year would be about $2 million — less than 10 percent of the predicted $25 million (and rising) shortfall.
And there’s some funny stuff out there. In the same P-I article referred to above, Don Kennedy, the district’s chief financial officer, is paraphrased as saying there would be “37 positions being eliminated by the school closures.” If that’s the case, taking the $72,000 per year average cost (including all benefits) of non-teaching staff, that totals more than $2.6 million (higher if any teachers are cut, average pay including benefits, $86,500), or most of the predicted $600,000 per year per school savings. That means of the $3 million per year maximum savings from closing five schools, only $1.4 million per year going forward (inflated, of course) actually comes from building operations, a pretty small figure in the $25 million deficit for next year.
It’s also a reminder that when it comes to the bottom line, the real problem in school finance is chronic state underfunding, not building operations. State underfunding, making a long story short, shifts payroll costs to the local levies. If this weren’t the case, a local district would have the money to make rational decisions balancing the number of neighborhood schools against other local program enrichment options.
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