The Seattle School District faces a costly dilemma. A growing school-age population is increasing enrollment, and district planners have already started briefing the school board on what that means. Because of population growth and recession-strapped families pulling their kids out of private schools, the district likely will need to renovate and reopen closed schools and possibly build some new ones, the planners say.
There’s a whole tool box full of options on the table, according to a PowerPoint presentation to the board at a recent work session on “capacity management.” The list includes obvious things like “more efficient space utilization” and “minor building modifications.”
It also includes actions sure to raise the anxiety level of parents such as “adjusting geographic zones for option schools,” “adding, relocating and/or removing programs,” “temporary grade configuration changes” and (the dreaded) “adjusting school boundaries.” (“Can be done, but not desirable,” says a footnote on the page.)
Among the solutions, there’s also the costly option of re-opening closed schools, which is particularly embarrassing. Between 2007 and 2009, the district closed 12 schools two of which, Rainier View and Viewlands are already slated for reopening, at a cost of $7 and $10 million, respectively (all in, books and desks included). This does not include Old Hay on Queen Anne Hill, which served bilingual students until 2009. Its reuse after renovation as a new Queen Anne Elementary was planned at the time it was closed. Nor does it include renovation and reopening next fall of the long-closed McDonald Elementary building near Green Lake.
Clearly, significant costs for enrolling more students are already in the pipeline but still there is the need for more space. Planners said there’s even the possibility that the district would need to build new schools in parts of the city where population growth has or will soon exceed the available classroom seats.
One consequence of renovating and reopening schools or building new ones in response to growing enrollment would be a shift in capital dollars away from renovating older schools; many of these have been in the queue for improvements for years.
This is no doubt a bleak picture. It certainly appears to force a lot of uncomfortable change on a school system that for years now has seen a lot of instability. But there is a way out.
I would suggest that there is a way to offer good schooling to the district’s increasing number of students and at the same time avoid spending any money on expanding existing school buildings or re-opening closed ones.
That solution would be "The Bill and Melinda Gates Free Private School District." Pursuing such a scheme, the Seattle School District would avoid the costs of new or re-opened schools because it would not have to grow. And the Gates Foundation, known for its keen interest in school reform, at last would be able to develop school programs capable of demonstrating for everyone what kinds of schools the reformers envision.
A dream come true, the foundation would be able to develop new schools from scratch without the compromises that so often undermine reform in public school districts. For example, these new schools would be able to set goals and make the changes and spend the money necessary to really get all third graders reading at grade level and 95 percent of students graduating from high school college- and work-ready. These are achievements that educators today justifiably hold among the highest measures success. Only the re-establishment of the New Orleans school district with a majority of charter schools after Hurricane Katrina has presented reformers with this kind of opportunity.
Striking in its simplicity, here’s how the idea could work:
First, the school district and the Gates Foundation would have to enter into medium-term leases (19 years is enough for the foundation to prove what can be done) for, say, four to six school buildings currently closed or in other uses. The result would boost district revenue immediately. Right now, despite budgeters’ and consultants’ oft-repeated promises, the district rarely makes much money leasing its closed buildings. Worse, empty buildings require tens of thousands of dollars for minimal upkeep while generating absolutely no revenue, and currently there are a half-dozen vacant sites, so a lease rate of $500,000 per year for each building would put $2 million to $3 million a year in school coffers.
As part of the deal, of course, the foundation would take charge of renovating the buildings, which likely will run about $10 million per site based on the cost for Viewlands. It was pretty rundown before it closed and was vandalized during its closure. Some of the available buildings have comparable problems. And if a building has been closed for two years or more, it must be brought up to current seismic and safety codes before kids can be allowed in, according to district officials.
Buildings likely for the first round of leases to Gates would include Van Asselt on Beacon Hill, Hughes in West Seattle, Columbia on Rainier Avenue in Columbia City, T.T. Minor in the Central Area, and John Marshall, a former “junior high school” near Green Lake. Two of these buildings, Van Asselt and Marshall, would best be reopened as middle schools since that would relieve serious crowding expected at Aki Kurose and Eckstein middle schools. Having a couple of K-8 schoos in the mix would also help the Gates Foundation experiment with programs that work for those grades, getting every student through Algebra I in eighth grade, for example.
Second, costs: As with Seattle Public Schools, students enrolled in the Bill and Melinda Gates Free Private School District would pay nothing. The Gates Foundation would have to cover all costs: building renovation and maintenance, heat and light, student meals, school nurses, instructional materials, field trips, athletics, teaching staff and administration. No public funds, state or local, would go to the Gates schools; the school district would pay nothing.
On the downside, the district would not gain state funding of approximately $6,200 per student per year. Offsetting the loss, though, Seattle Public Schools would not incur the costs of having those kids in district classrooms.
Likely, the foundation and its partners, if any were needed, would have no trouble covering the approximately $3 million annually spent staffing a Seattle elementary school — roughly $7,000 per student. Other costs from custodial through food service to central administration run the district’s annual per student cost up to slightly more than $12,000. Even at that rate, a 400-student elementary comes in at less than $5 million per year, an amount easy to imagine the Gates Foundation could afford.
Third, enrollment. Students would be chosen by lottery. To make the selection fair, all students living in areas where district schools are overcrowded or don’t have the capacity to handle current growth would be included in the process. This approach would keep the foundation’s schools from having a student body made up of only those kids whose parents are aware of the program or who especially want to get their children out of public schools they think are weak. Though lottery-winning families would be free to decline the assignment, to the greatest degree possible avoiding the bias introduced by self-selection would make study comparisons between SPS and the new Gates schools more valid.
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