The Seattle School District has come up with a new assignment plan that makes it clear where every student will attend elementary, middle, and high school, providing a predictability to assignments that’s been missing since desegregation busing started almost 40 years ago. But the plan requires spending $45 million to reopen five schools less than a year after a decision that closed five other schools last spring and relocated eight academic programs.
Seattle Public Schools’ neighborhood-based assignment plan probably isn’t a big deal for Seattleites without kids in the schools. Much of what will be argued about at public meetings this month — where the attendance boundaries will fall, equitable access to “choice schools” — will seem like inside baseball to most folks.
But what might get taxpayers going is this: To enroll kids close to where they live, recreating the neighborhood school system of almost 40 years ago before desegregation busing started, the district will reopen five elementary schools, two of which shut their doors in 2007 at the end of the school year and one that was closed only last year.
Reopening those schools will cost as much as $45 million in capital improvements, according to Kathy Johnson, the district’s facilities planning manager. Ironically, a report to the school board’s finance committee on the estimated capital savings from closing seven schools in 2006 and 2007 was $44,870,246. The capital cost savings, mostly avoided maintenance, from closing the five schools earlier this year was estimated at $33 million. The district will ask voters to foot the $45 million cost of reopening these schools as part of its Buildings-Technology-Academics capital levy on the ballot in February.
Rainier View in the far south end and Viewlands in northwest Seattle, both closed in 2007, will reopen in the fall of 2011. Old Hay on Queen Anne Hill, which housed a school for middle- and high-school-aged immigrant children learning English until last spring, will reopen as an “option” (read “choice”) elementary in 2011. The other reopening schools, McDonald in Wallingford (opening 2012) and Sand Point (2010), have been closed much longer, though McDonald has often served as a temporary home for students whose schools were being rebuilt. When it was closed along with another group of schools last year, district officials said reopening Old Hay was likely to handle enrollment growth in the Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods.
While closing schools one year and opening others the next may undermine the district’s credibility with voters, the new student assignment plan has a lot of pluses. “It has been 39 years since we have had predictable assignments in Seattle Schools,” board President Michael DeBell said Tuesday night (Oct. 6), referring to the start of mandatory busing.
Now, based on a family’s home address, residents will know from the outset exactly where their children will attend elementary, middle, and high school. That hasn’t been possible up to now because the “open choice” enrollment system was essentially one of competition, mediated by complex rules, among all students for seats in desirable schools. Effects of every action rippled across the district as the losers were assigned to second or third choice schools. Lack of predictable assignments is frequently cited by parents as a reason to send their children to private schools.
In fact, under the system now being phased out, families moving into Seattle might find that even living across the street from the school wasn’t enough to get their kids enrolled, especially if they arrived in town after the school assignment period closed in March. Because of that, some businesses reportedly would tell new employees with kids not to move into the city, but to try Bellevue instead.
That kind of irrationality is gone in the new system. Under the new assignment plan, every elementary school has an assignment area and if you live there, your children can go to that school. Up the line, your address also determines which middle and high schools your children will attend. And at the same time, the new plan offers 11 choice schools (mostly the desirable K-8s and three alternative high schools) that families who want something different can apply for without losing their children’s guaranteed spaces in their “attendance area” (neighborhood) school.
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