School closures: let's get more cards on the table

It's become a trade off between cutting staff positions and building closures. The teachers' union quietly comes out for closures, but we still don't know enough about the options to judge well.
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Montlake Elementary School.

It's become a trade off between cutting staff positions and building closures. The teachers' union quietly comes out for closures, but we still don't know enough about the options to judge well.

School closures and program moves for Seattle Schools have been under discussion for a month now and Linda Shaw'ꀙs story in The Seattle Times today is the first to lay out the tradeoff that'ꀙs been a focus of school employee and teacher attention. In the background all along, it'ꀙs been employment versus building operating costs.

Shaw reports that the Seattle Education Association, the union representing teachers, this week voted to reaffirm the union'ꀙs position favoring closure. The discussion at the representative council meeting must have been lively, since a proposal to abandon the earlier resolution got nearly 50 percent of the votes, according to Shaw. (A two-thirds majority is needed to change union policy.)

It'ꀙs telling that SEA has been silent for the past month while the district and parents agonize over ever-changing closure plans. Last time around, then-SEA President Wendy Kimball and others testified at every opportunity in favor of closures. The union'ꀙs silence so far is evidence that drawing attention to their stand last time got them burned by parents and some of their members, at least those in the schools slated for closure. Hence the nearly 50 percent dissent this time around.

It'ꀙs also worth noting that the other budget cuts so far put on the table by Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson — among them $5 million from central office, $4.2 million in school funding cuts (class size increases in grades 4 and 5), and a $2 million hiring freeze — are part of a list that still comes $10 million short of meeting a projected $37 million revenue shortfall. That means more cuts to come, and they will almost entirely have to come from staff, teachers, and others, since more than 80 percent of the district'ꀙs budget is payroll.

Faced with such large additional cuts, the school board needs to ask Goodloe-Johnson to put the whole package on the table for everyone to see. How deep is a $5 million cut from central office? How many staff are cut and what are they doing now? How many more can be cut? How many teaching positions need to be cut? How many teachers'ꀙ aides? Taking into account the effects of the hiring freeze, how many teachers and teachers aides will lose their jobs? What will the impact be? And how will that impact compare with closing schools? (For sake of argument, if an elementary teacher costs $60,000 per year including benefits, then laying off 60 teachers would raise $3.6 million and allow the district to drop entirely the current school closure plan and wait a year until there'ꀙs a new assignment plan in place and closures, if any, can be better planned.)

It'ꀙs time for the district to ask its constituents up front whether they want to close schools or let class sizes rise by two or three students while we get through this recession. Unfortunately, what'ꀙs driving district staff and the teachers union is a justifiable fear, given the budget cutting still to come, that the impact on staff and class sizes will be worse than this, with layoffs that will go way beyond the teacher vs. school closure tradeoff. All the more reason for the board to ask to see all the cards now.


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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.