Seattle Courant Archive

Closing schools: here's a better way

Closing schools: here's a better way

By Dick Lilly
January 23, 2009

But not everything in Goodloe-Johnson’s plan is bad, though most of it is. The worst part of her plan is what she hasn’t proposed, the opportunities missed that are more likely to strengthen Seattle Public Schools than what the superintendent offers. And it’s those latent opportunities that should make the school board pause.

The seven-member board has three options available. First, they can follow Goodloe-Johnson's plan. Since school boards have a strong built-in bias to accept the leadership of the superhero they’ve hired to “save” or “rebuild” their district, this is likely. Reinforcing this tendency is the bleak economy and budget outlook. This behavior was epitomized last week at a budget work session where, as quoted in a P-I story by Keri Murikami, board member Cheryl Chow admonished her colleagues, saying, "The experts [meaning Goodloe-Johnson and her staff] have been at the table and they have been pounding these numbers and living in this (budget) squeeze every day." At the other pole is board member Mary Bass who sounds as though she opposes all closures.

Chief among these restructuring ideas is the superintendent’s proposal to send half the enrollment in gifted programs at the Lowell Elementary building and Washington Middle School to other buildings. The result would be four buildings (instead of one, Washington) in which the accelerated progress program (APP) would split the space with neighborhood school programs. The history of buildings with split programs has been one of conflict, two separate programs under one principal grumbling about the division of scarce resources. The problem continues today at Washington.

In their lobbying to head off an adverse vote, APP parents, a well-organized and influential group, are reminding board members of the conflicts when APP shared Madrona elementary with the neighborhood program. To end that dispute and strengthen both programs, then-Superintendent John Stanford moved APP to the Lowell building and, despite community objection, dispersed the Lowell kids to other Capitol Hill and Central Area elementaries. Positively, the move also created Madrona K-8.

There’s not a lot more in the “do no harm” agenda because of the way any school closure plan that moves programs interlocks like a Rubik’s Cube. But here are some variations the board could suggest:

1. Move the Pathfinder K-8 program, closing its current home, the Genesee Hill building in West Seattle, to the Cooper building on Pigeon Point north of South Seattle Community College. This would disperse the Cooper enrollment of 300 to other West Seattle elementaries, but it has the advantage of strengthening a K-8 program and is the least harmful item on Goodloe-Johnson’s list because of that.

2. More harmful because of its impact on the Central area, the board could disperse Meany Middle School students and do as Goodloe-Johnson suggests, move the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC) from the Old Hay building on Queen Anne Hill and NOVA Alternative High School from the Mann building near Garfield into Meany. Old Hay and Mann, both old buildings that the district has allowed to deteriorate, would close

3. Still more harmful to the Central Area, the board could follow the superintendent's plan and close T. T. Minor Elementary, dispersing the 206 students there.

4. Also harmful because it kills a program without providing an alternative that would strengthen the district, the board could go ahead with the proposal to close Van Asselt Elementary, moving the school’s nearly 500 kids into the new building now occupied by the African American Academy. The AAA program would end, with approximately 350 students dispersed.

5. An adventurous board could also resurrect one option Goodloe-Johnson took off the table, closing the Pinehurst building in the Northgate area and ending the Alternative School #1 (AS#1), an alternative K-8 housed there. AS#1 has underperformed and is subject to No Child Left Behind federal sanctions.

Those actions close all five of the schools Goodloe-Johnson has on her current list plus one, and the impact isn’t small. About 3,000 students would be moved or dispersed, but it’s less than half the 6,000-plus who would be affected by the superintendent’s additional plans to close, split, or move other programs. Thus the board has the option of minimizing the Goodloe-Johnson plan’s impact by focusing narrowly on closures — which is what this is supposed to be about — and discarding the superintendent’s over-reaching add-ons. This approach also has the advantage of minimizing the impact on special education programs, many more of which suffer relocation under the superintendent’s plan. And, of course, the board can stop anywhere between one and five or six schools as it might choose.

But there is a third path the board could take by delaying the whole plan for a year. The cost of delay wouldn’t be that high. In the district’s current proposal the net savings from closing five school buildings for the 2009-2010 school year would be about $2 million — less than 10 percent of the predicted $25 million (and rising) shortfall.

And there’s some funny stuff out there. In the same P-I article referred to above, Don Kennedy, the district’s chief financial officer, is paraphrased as saying there would be “37 positions being eliminated by the school closures.” If that’s the case, taking the $72,000 per year average cost (including all benefits) of non-teaching staff, that totals more than $2.6 million (higher if any teachers are cut, average pay including benefits, $86,500), or most of the predicted $600,000 per year per school savings. That means of the $3 million per year maximum savings from closing five schools, only $1.4 million per year going forward (inflated, of course) actually comes from building operations, a pretty small figure in the $25 million deficit for next year.

It’s also a reminder that when it comes to the bottom line, the real problem in school finance is chronic state underfunding, not building operations. State underfunding, making a long story short, shifts payroll costs to the local levies. If this weren’t the case, a local district would have the money to make rational decisions balancing the number of neighborhood schools against other local program enrichment options.

So, if the board worries about enrollment loss and buys the argument many closure opponents are making, that the building operations savings are too small to justify hatchet surgery, they’ll take the third path and wait. If they do, there’s a chance that a better closure and program-shifting plan might emerge, one based on ideas more generally agreed to be good for the long term future of Seattle Public Schools.

Waiting a year also means the school board will be able to finish the long-awaited new student assignment plan, which itself will contribute to informed decisions about which schools are needed to serve resident populations. For example, if an assignment plan based on residence — kids go to the closest school with some exceptions such as choice for low-income families — Rainier Beach High School would be full and paying for itself, and Goodloe-Johnson never would have, however briefly, put it on the closure list last month.

Enlightened by a new assignment plan, responding to the kinds of schools parents want, and drawing on the example of some of the district’s most successful schools, next year’s version of the school closure proposal would be based on expanding the number of K-8 schools, providing those educational opportunities as choices for families in every region of the city. Supporting this approach are several K-8s — TOPS, Salmon Bay, and Pathfinder — widely viewed as among the best schools in the city.

Plan elements could include:

1. As proposed by Goodloe-Johnson, move Pathfinder to the Cooper building, strengthening that K-8, and closing the Genesee Hill building. (Cooper students would be displaced, but in all such cases, displaced students should be given first preference choices for the next year, regardless of other conditions of the new assignment plan.)

2. Also as proposed by the superintendent, use the former Addams Junior High School building now housing Summit K-12, as a new K-8 for northeast Seattle. (More on Summit below.)

3. Meany Middle School becomes a K-8, providing elementary and middle school seats on Capitol Hill and the Central Area at about the level of current enrollment. Students from T. T. Minor have a place to go only a few blocks from where they are now enrolled. There may even be room for the Montessori program at T.T. Minor to move with them.

4. NOVA moves to the T.T. Minor building and the Mann building closes.

5. Aki Kurose Middle School becomes a K-8. Room remains in the building to house the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center, which moves from Old Hay. Old Hay closes or, as in the superintendent’s plan, reopens as an elementary again for the growing school-age population on Queen Anne Hill. This may be necessary to allow Blaine on Magnolia to stay a K-8.

6. The African American Academy building also becomes a K-8, serving southeast Seattle. All K-8s operate as regional choices. (The assignment plan should send all kids to their neighborhood elementaries with regional and alternative school choice providing preferences only to siblings of kids already enrolled or children from low-income families moving to schools with low-income enrollments less than the district average.)

7. Van Asselt likely needs to stay open and move up the list of schools scheduled for remodeling. This would be subject to the demographic impacts of the new, surrounding K-8s.

8. The New School in the Rainier Beach neighborhood continues to grow to K-8.

9. Summit K-12 is gets the option to move to Wilson Pacific, a former Junior High School building near Aurora Ave. N at North 90th St. The building is fairly central, which is helpful for a school designed to be an option for a large area (depending on what the assignment and busing plan determines the district can afford). There are roughly 275 students at Wilson Pacific, the largest group of which is the Home School Resource Center with about 200 enrolled. Since all 200 are not there all at once, the two programs might fit the building. There are also about 80 staffers for seven small programs with offices there. Since the promise of John Stanford Center was consolidation of administrative functions, these people should move to central office. Moving Summit to Wilson Pacific looks possible.

10. Finally, next year’s plan should resurrect one option recently dropped from the Goodloe-Johnson’s plan. The proposal to close AS#1 and the Pinehurst building where it’s located deserves reconsideration. AS#1 has not performed as advertised and must develop a reconstitution plan under federal law. As noted above, an argument can be made that it should be included in this year’s closures, if the board decides, despite the uncertainties and limited savings, to move ahead.

Bottom line: four new K-8s are created, five counting the New School — big pluses for the district. Three buildings are closed, Genesee Hill, Mann, and Old Hay unless reconfiguration of Queen Anne-Magnolia enrollment justifies keeping it open; five closed buildings are possible, depending on the demographics surrounding Van Asselt once the K-8s are in place, and the outcome of a renewed debate on the performance of AS#1.

Dick Lilly served on the Seattle School Board from 2001-05 and earlier covered the Seattle Public Schools as a reporter for The Seatle Times. You can reach him in care of