Advanced Displacement

Closing public schools and limiting choice would save little, squeeze successful programs, and alienate those who can flee.

The bombshell that Superintendent Raj Manhas and his staff dropped last week on the Seattle School District—a sweeping, traumatic plan that would close 10 schools, convert or relocate a number of others, and scale back students' ability to attend schools of their choosing—might be seriously modified or rejected, judging by School Board member comments. That's good, because the plan as presented would snuff out some of the brightest lights of the district, reduce student options, and displace thousands of kids, all while saving only a tiny amount of money. Meanwhile, the district has a real budget problem.

Seattle's schools face an ongoing $20.7 million annual deficit, brought about in part by inadequate state support, of which Manhas speaks with eloquence. "I want citizens to know that it took 10 to 12 years for this state to become 42nd in the nation in funding of school systems," he said at a press conference announcing the closure plan last week. He was referring to a recent survey in the periodical Education Week that ranked states according to per-pupil spending. "If we were average, this school system would have $46 million more" annually.

In the absence of help from the state, Manhas had to cut costs. But his plan would save just over $5 million a year, and that's after an expensive transition. Upon implementation in 2006–07, the district would still need to cut an additional $16 million to $18 million. Board member Dick Lilly predicts significant layoffs, which Manhas' plan does not address.

The School Board will approve or veto the reorganization plan July 13. Board President Brita Butler-Wall, appearing with Manhas at the press conference, called the plan "bold" and "very, very well-crafted." But other board members seem less enamored. Lilly, a small-schools advocate, has long contested the idea of closing schools to save a little money because he thinks it will simply increase class sizes. Board member Sally Soriano said she'd like to take the plan off the table, calling it "premature," announced without discussion of alternatives.

Besides not saving much money, the proposal to close schools, reassign students, and cut transportation costs by allowing less choice seems destined to alienate better-off parents who can afford to send their kids to private schools or move to the suburbs. The state gives school districts money based on enrollment, so keeping this constituency from fleeing and perhaps triggering a downward funding spiral is important. (See "They Choose or We Lose," Feb. 16.) "This whole proposal, this is all centered around students—all of our students in all the neighborhoods of the city," Manhas declared. The superintendent seemed to be aiming for crosstown equity, a racial and economic issue continually stressed by a reformist board. "Our expectation for social justice has changed," Butler-Wall chimed in. That is likely why the district recommended closures in the comparatively affluent north part of town as well as in the poorer south, and it might also explain the bizarre decision to shut down some of the city's most successful schools and programs. The district has not figured out how to help disadvantaged students without slighting the middle- and upper-class ones it needs—not only to maintain state revenue but to have a healthy mix of academic achievers.

"I think what they're doing is taking away services from people they're serving in order to attempt to serve people they haven't been serving," says Katherine Triandafilou, co-president of the PTSA at Garfield High School. That academic jewel of Seattle's high schools, for example, would no longer house the gifted students coming out of the middle-school Accelerated Progress Program, at least not all of them. The district would assign APP students to their neighborhood high schools, which ostensibly would be beefed up with more Advanced Placement courses, increasing opportunity for top-level work around the city. But Triandafilou points out that schools need a critical mass to offer AP classes. "When students want to take AP Latin because they're going to a top college but there are only five people in the building who want it—how are they possibly going to do that?"

Triandafilou believes, moreover, that the plan would work against rather than for crosstown equity. Since many advanced level students are from the north end, AP offerings would drift from the Central Area, where Garfield is located, to Roosevelt and Ballard high schools in the north. "What we're going to do is create a Mason-Dixon line at the Ship Canal," she says.

The district also proposes to close popular Montlake and North Beach elementaries, both high-achieving schools. North Beach last year had the second-highest fourth-grade WASL scores in the city.

Manhas put a positive spin on his plan. "The future looks wonderful," he said. We just have to get through two or three years of tough decisions. But it is hard not to feel dispirited. A coup de grâce is the recommended closure of T.T. Minor. It's a grand experiment supported with millions of dollars from philanthropist Stuart Sloan, who wanted to create a model school for poor and minority kids. His funding of T.T. Minor was due to end soon, so the suggested closure is perhaps understandable. But if after all that energy and money the T.T. Minor experiment is to abruptly stop, why did we do it?

Manhas insists that lessons learned at T.T. Minor, such as the benefits of an extended school year, were starting to pay off and could be tried at other schools. But one of the main findings, Manhas says, is that "it takes money." That's not a lesson the district is about to apply anytime soon. It simply can't.

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