Schools closure plan has lots of disruption

The next weeks will produce lots of arguments about the musical chairs being played with many programs in the Seattle district.
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A poster used in the campaign to stop Seattle Public Schools from closing Arbor Heights Elementary, which had been listed in an earlier recommendation but spared in the final proposal.

The next weeks will produce lots of arguments about the musical chairs being played with many programs in the Seattle district.

The list of Seattle school buildings proposed for closure shrank from seven to five when schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson yesterday released her final school closure and program relocations, which the district says are necessary to help balance the 2009-2010 budget.

Prayers were answered for parents whose children attend Alternative School No. 1 in the Pinehurst building near Northgate, and Montlake Elementary. Those two schools will stay open. Hopes were dashed for parents of children in the discontinued African American Academy program and parents supporting Summit K-12, an alternative school in the former Addams Junior High School Building. The latter group lost a three-year battle to save their kids'ꀙ program from dissolution; that dispute began back in 2006 when the district closed seven schools.

The school buildings that would be closed by next fall in the superintendent'ꀙs plan were all on the list first announced in November: Genesee Hill, home of the Pathfinder K-8 program which will move to the Cooper building near South Seattle Community College; the old wooden Horace Mann building across from Garfield playground that houses NOVA alternative high school (slated to move to the Meany Middle School building); T.T. Minor Elementary on Cherry Hill in the Central Area, whose students will be dispersed; Van Asselt Elementary on Beacon Hill, whose students will be assigned to the African American Academy building a mile or so to the south; and Old Hay atop Queen Anne Hill whose Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC) students will move to share Meany with NOVA.

If Old Hay is closed for next year, Goodloe-Johnson'ꀙs plan says it may be reopened for fall 2010, since growth in the elementary school age population in the Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods has surprised district analysts — as has growth in the city north of downtown generally. So the net long term is likely to be four closed school buildings, assuming the school board goes along with the superintendent when it votes on the plan Jan. 29.

During the next few weeks when hearings are scheduled on the plan, there will be dozens of good and bad arguments made against specifics of the plan and complaints expressed about the musical chairs being played with various programs to make the plan fit the remaining infrastructure. For example, the accelerated progress program (APP) is split from two sites to four, T.T. Minor'ꀙs Montessori program ends up at Leschi Elementary and T.T.'ꀙs other kids are sent to the Lowell building, displacing half the APP kids there, sending them to Thurgood Marshall Elementary to share that building with a general education program. There are so many moves (altogether eight programs will be relocated) that the number of children affected far exceeds just the enrollment of the schools that would close.

Even with the shrunken closure list, there'ꀙs going to be a lot of pain for families. But whatever the arguments the school board hears about the academic value of various programs, continuity for kids and that sort of thing, Goodloe-Johnson'ꀙs plan hits one note of real consistency. All five of the schools proposed for closure are in pretty bad physical shape and haven'ꀙt been renovated (work on T.T. Minor in 1960 is the most recent in the bunch) despite the district'ꀙs excellent building reconstruction and renovation program. The capital program, using money from voter approved levies and bonds, has invested more than $1 billion in schools and athletic facilities in the past 10 years. Tuesday'ꀙs five unfortunate schools have been waiting their turn for upgrades — but now apparently in vain.

Tuesday'ꀙs announcement pegs the savings for the closure plan at $18 million over five years with implementation costs of $1.9 million for a net of $16.2 million in that time. This is the first time Goodloe-Johnson has shown a five-year projection, a strategy which seems to put the proposal in a better light. Previously the district has projected savings from closing an elementary school building, which by program size all of these are, at between $300,000 and $600,000 per year. Splitting the difference at $450,000 times five schools, or $2,250,000, minus $1,900,000 in implementation costs, yields first year savings of only $350,000. (The five-year, $18 million figure properly includes inflation.) Even before today'ꀙs announcement, parents have used the modest — if not paltry — first-year figure to argue for delay.

The total budget gap which the closure plan is designed to address in part is $37.1 million and Goodloe-Johnson has proposed central office staff cuts and changes in the school funding formula that would raise elementary class sizes, among other things, to help close the gap between revenues and continuing to operate with today'ꀙs number of buildings at today'ꀙs staffing levels. Unfortunately, while the analysis for school closings has been exhaustive, the board and the public have yet to see much of any detail of the other budget-balancing elements. That leaves some wondering just what'ꀙs in the package and why there'ꀙs such a push for school closures.

And while the Goodloe-Johnson plan is consistent in proposing to close buildings in poor physical condition, the other elements lack an equally clear rationale. To get an idea of the extent to which the plan moves kids around, look at the report's long list of changes.

The district'ꀙs rationale for all this is that it'ꀙs "moving or adding programs to improve equity and access to quality programs across the District." To others, such as APP parents, many of whom fear the program will be weakened by the breakup, the list reads like a recipe for disaster. It all may be a disaster in another way, too. After the 2007 closures, 20 percent of the kids who had been in closed schools left the district. There could be a similar enrollment drop due to these disruptions. And with revenue of about $12,000 per student, all ultimately tied to enrollment, losing only 85 kids costs $1 million. District officials have yet to present a budget that acknowledges likely enrollment and revenue declines.


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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.