How Seattle schools can solve its capacity problem

Rising enrollment projections will strain Seattle Public Schools resources close to the breaking point. So why not let the Gates Foundation build some new schools that really test their reform ideas?

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Seattle's Columbia School building could be a target for leasing under a proposal by the author.

Rising enrollment projections will strain Seattle Public Schools resources close to the breaking point. So why not let the Gates Foundation build some new schools that really test their reform ideas?

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.

Importantly, the Gates schools would not replace existing elementary schools, nor change any attendance-area boundaries. The kids in the lottery would only be those from overcrowded or potentially overcrowded schools and only enough children to prevent overcrowding would be assigned to Gates free schools. They would, as it were, simply be lifted out of the Seattle school system; Seattle schools would operate normally, with an enrollment exactly adjusted to match the district’s capacity.

There are also benefits likely more important than the lease revenue and the money the school district would save by not having to expand to handle more students. Studies comparing the academic achievement of Seattle Public Schools students and those enrolled in the Gates Free Private School District likely could help answer some of the big questions about which school reforms work. For example, the Gates schools could include universal child care and preschool programs. The data that can be gathered may well help the public better understand the efficacy of early childhood education and provide accurate information about what it costs to provide this level of preschool preparation for all — and especially for children from low-income families.

The Gates schools would also provide data on what kind of extra time on task (longer school days and a longer school year) and extra cost it may take to guarantee that all of their children are reading at grade level at the end of third grade. Since few public schools, especially those enrolling children from low-income families, reach this goal, data from the Gates schools on class sizes, additional teacher time, and other strategies to help kids who fall behind could help public education administrators and school boards get a better picture of what it takes.

This is the most important thing to be gained from the SPS-Gates arrangement. The express goal of the Gates free private schools has to be to do schooling right, to demonstrate what it takes to provide a flawless elementary or K-8 education to any and all children. The Gates schools, therefore, must spend what it takes and that information would naturally be made available to the public and policy makers — the school board, mayor, city council, and state legislators. Everyone would get to see in the real world, with real kids., what it actually costs to do a good job with elementary school. Finally, instead of arguments over hypothetical conditions and contradictory studies by experts, we’d know exactly what works and what it costs.

We might learn as some argue that not enough is spent to do the job right. Or as others believe, we might learn that we’re spending enough but doing the wrong things. Right now we don’t know what those answers are, but thanks to the Gates Free Private School District, the public and educators will have concrete answers to those questions from firsthand experience. This would be invaluable knowledge.

Looking ahead to a second phase, the Gates Foundation could develop a middle school and a high school. Suitable buildings may not be available. But there’s a tradeoff. The Gates district could open a high school in centrally located leased commercial space — an office building — for less than it costs to renovate elementary schools. This strategy, though potentially lower in cost than renovation or new construction, is not available to public schools. Under state regulations, leases can’t be capitalized, so the payments have to come out of operation funds: out of the classroom. As a result, districts don't do it. No such restriction would apply to the Bill and Melinda Gates Free Private School District.

Accomplishing the plan laid out here would be a hard sell. Among local school watchers, advocates and activists, bloggers, interest groups and regular speakers at school board meetings, it’s popular to scorn the Gates Foundation along with the other big philanthropies that fund school reform.

To these folks, former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson was a kind of Manchurian Candidate likely to destroy the district from within because she attended the Ely and Edythe Broad Foundation’s superintendent training programs. (That she did seriously damage the district and had to resign was just a coincidence that had nothing to do with her Broad training.) The Seattle Education Association, the teachers union, is also a likely opponent because there’s little chance the Gates schools would be unionized.

The philanthropies are all regularly accused of trying of trying to use their money to buy the school reforms they favor by offering irresistibly huge cash grants. At other times, they’ll be damned for trying to destroy public education because they support charter schools or pay for performance for teachers. For those who hold these kinds of views, no amount of financial benefit for the cash-strapped district (and taxpayer savings) will ever be enough to convince them to give up a single building, run down or not, for anything like the plan outlined here. The question is, would the school board have the courage to think otherwise? Theirs could be an historic decision.


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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.