Seattle school closure plan, due Tuesday, still doesn't add up

The savings are small, and the closures seem arbitrary, but still the sense of panic over a budget gap is driving the plan.
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Montlake Elementary School.

The savings are small, and the closures seem arbitrary, but still the sense of panic over a budget gap is driving the plan.

On Tuesday Seattle Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson will release her final school closure plan, following two months during which options were offered and withdrawn and the overall impression was that no clear rationale or vision for the district was driving the closure plan. Really, that'ꀙs about it. The bottom line seems to be a sense of panic about closing a $37.1 million budget gap for next year, of which the $3.6 million allegedly to be saved by closing six schools looks like good money until you consider two things:

One, for next budget year, according to the district, the net after closing costs is only $1 million saved. (Yes, not closing schools beginning next fall creates a bow-wave deficit in 2010-2011 but it buys time to develop a new assignment plan which might change the landscape.)

And two, there is no calculation for loss of revenue to account for families pulling their children out of the district. (SPS with a budget of $550 million-plus for next year and a current enrollment of 45,000 therefore spends about $12,000 per student, the revenue for which is all ultimately enrollment based, so the loss of even a few hundred students is significant.) After the round of closures two years ago, 20 percent of students enrolled in closed schools left the district.

In fact, it'ꀙs bizarre that the rough cut for next year'ꀙs district budget includes $1 million in new revenue for enrollment increases. Of course, that'ꀙs based on the district'ꀙs own projections that elementary school enrollment is already rising and that middle and high school enrollment will rise in subsequent years. So despite their own enrollment projections, district officials paradoxically propose immediate school closures.

Lots of families out there probably hope that Dr. Goodloe-Johnson will announce on Tuesday that the district is dropping closures for now, so schools and communities can stop fighting each other and participate in a real planning process. Just in case she doesn'ꀙt, here are ten reasons that the district should stop this train.

1. The 'ꀜplan'ꀝ is not simple. It'ꀙs not clear why one school should close and not another. Some schools in high-demand neighborhoods such as Montlake Elementary are on the chopping block.

2. Other cost-cutting proposals have not been developed to the same degree. For example, there'ꀙs no detail on what a $5 million 'ꀜcentral office" cut means. Could it be more?

3. The district has imposed a hiring freeze to save an estimated $2 million, but is that enough to stave off significant teacher layoffs? Would school closings that net only $1 million in savings make a difference in that? What is the balance between teacher and central office layoffs? The figures aren'ꀙt out there for discussion yet.

4. There is no new student-assignment plan and the district expects to develop one afterward. This inverts the proper order of long-range planning and means there'ꀙs no underlying rationale for possible savings in busing costs, or limitations on choice that might be part of a future plan.

5. Overall building-use plans do not include likely considerable expansion of pre-K programs, a priority of the Obama presidency. With schools closed, there are fewer sites for such programs, and they'ꀙre farther from the homes of families who need them.

6. Two of the supposed criteria for closing schools — building condition and academic achievement — should have nothing to do with closure choices since they are the result of district neglect, also called programming 'ꀜpriorities,'ꀝ and even outright mistakes in hiring principals.

7. The closure plan does not respond to parent demand for more K-8 schools as opposed to large middle schools. And, specifically, it means all but two of the existing and proposed K-8s are in North and West Seattle, leaving Southeast Seattle underserved — again.

8. Co-housed programs (a school building with two different programs such as 'ꀜneighborhood elementary'ꀝ and Accelerated Progress Program) which Dr. Goodloe-Johnson has proposed for three or four buildings have a limited but problematic track record. For example, Madrona neighborhood parents spent a decade battling and finally driving APP out of their building.

9. The proposed closures, concentrated in Central and Southeast Seattle, do not account for the possible return of modest income families to these areas now that housing prices have dropped.

10. And several more good reason, that any parent of a child at a school proposed for closure could provide.

It will be tough for the school board to claim they'ꀙve got answers to all these questions by the time they take a final vote on closures at the end of the month.


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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.