Closing schools: blaming the victims

A lot of the rationales for closing Seattle school buildings don't hold up. Often the reason for closing the school is the choice of the district to neglect that very school.
Crosscut archive image.

Montlake Elementary School.

A lot of the rationales for closing Seattle school buildings don't hold up. Often the reason for closing the school is the choice of the district to neglect that very school.

Picked up by both daily reporters from a couple hours of discussion on Seattle School closures, here'ꀙs the quote that tells it all: "If we don't close facilities ... we cut people, and we cut programs to the point where we don't really have quality."

That remark by Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, which deliberately defines school closures and staff cuts as alternatives to one another, should give the school board serious cause to hold up on the runaway the closure process. If closure is an alternative to staff cuts, then the board should insist that Goodloe-Johnson put all her budget cutting strategies on the table now so the board (and the public) can see the consequences of each. Even draconian staff cuts might be a better idea than killing off some neighborhood schools. Until that'ꀙs done, then the rising criticisms of the ever-shifting closure plan are fully justified. Here are some examples:

1. The proposal calls for closing schools before there'ꀙs a new student assignment plan, so any analysis based on current enrollment patterns is no more than a look backward at the remains of 30 years of desegregation busing. South End schools, particularly the high schools, are relatively under-enrolled now compared to the real population of youngsters in their surrounding neighborhoods. That'ꀙs because the choice system that grew out of busing for racial balance still allows a northward drift of enrollment.

2. Claims that the proposed closures deliberately and unfairly undercut alternative schools may have merit.

3. The latest proposal to move Center School, the high school at Seattle Center, and Montlake elementary may arise from a similar bias. There have always been administrators and a fair number of parents who never agreed with the small school idea pushed by the Gates Foundation about 10 years ago. They view the Center School as elitist and therefore expendable. Montlake, which was on the block early in the first round of cuts several years ago, was an easy target then and may still be, because school administrators and folks from other neighborhoods can muster little sympathy for the upper middle class Montlake families.

4. School performance should not be a criterion for closure, because the success of a program is the responsibility of the superintendent who appoints the principal and district policies on how much is spent on what.

5. Proposed changes in the district'ꀙs approach to training immigrant and refugee English language learners could change how schools are used and reduce the number of bilingual classroom aides needed.

6. Building condition should not be a criterion because, again, the order in which schools receive funding from the Building Excellence and other capital levies for major maintenance, renovation, or complete reconstruction is a decision made by the superintendent and board.

Stressed families may offer more reasons. But let me add some further observations about closures based on building conditions. The district rationale says closing schools in poor physical condition saves capital expenditures later on. That approach confounds operating and capital expenditures and uses the latter wrongly to leverage the closure proposals. The district has a well-thought-out, long-term major maintenance program based on levies every three years. Wonderful new schools have been built and others renovated. The district has the power to direct these funds to any school where academic or enrollment reasons justify its continuing operation.

But what if you accept the district'ꀙs view that future capital costs should be counted in the closure equation? By this logic, closing the Center School (outright or with a poison-pill relocation of the program to Rainier Beach) is counter productive because it will cost capital money down the road. Here's why. The Seattle Center space the Center School now occupies costs about $80,000 a year, according to district staff at a recent meeting, though that pays a lease, so it comes from the operating fund and is worth about one teacher. Assuming Center'ꀙs 300 students stay in the district (of course, all won'ꀙt), and since most of them live north of downtown, they'ꀙll try to enroll in the overcrowded high schools (Garfield and north), adding pressure for the district to reopen the Lincoln High School building as a new high school — an expensive "unintended" consequence.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.