Time to Pitch In

It's easy to dislike a plan to close schools, but who's got a better idea to save $20 million? Possibly lots of people.

Well, schools Superintendent Raj Manhas has our attention now. The shock and horror created by his plan to save money by downsizing the Seattle Public Schools engaged Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims, and hundreds of highly motivated parents who had never been active at the district level. On May 17, saying that he had heard Seattle's voice, Manhas gracefully took several of the plan's most controversial elements off the table. But there's still a $20 million deficit to solve. So now what?

The idea of closing schools, as floated in Manhas' plan, is not entirely dead. School Board President Brita Butler-Wall, among others, still believes that closures are a necessity given the relatively large number of schools we maintain for our enrollment size, which has shrunk over the past few decades. While the mayor has been saying that the district should look to the successful Bellevue School District as a model of financial efficiency, Bellevue Superintendent Mike Riley says he told Manhas that Seattle ought to close 20 schools, not merely 10. That would give Seattle approximately the schools-per-student ratio that Bellevue has.

There's also a political element to closing schools. The district is imploring legislators to rectify the situation that has made Washington 42nd in the country in per-pupil funding. Yet House Appropriations Chair Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, has pointedly asked Seattle whether its own financial house is in order. At a breakfast last fall for Seattle's legislators, hosted by the school district, Butler-Wall recalls, "Helen Sommers looked right at him [Manhas] and said, 'How many schools have you closed?'"

But one of the problems with Manhas' plan, Butler-Wall now concedes, is that it would have closed the wrong schools—at least in some cases. The district did not look at academic performance in deciding which schools should get the ax. It was generally thought that the board did not want academics to be a criterion, for the sake of equity, the idea being that disadvantaged, poorly performing students would be penalized by having their schools close. Butler-Wall says that while the board did not want the district to look narrowly at test scores, it did want a more comprehensive look at a school's success. District "staff said they misunderstood us," Butler-Wall says. As a result, the district proposed closing some of the most successful schools in the city, including North Beach and Montlake elementaries, as well as dismantling the highest-achieving high-school program, Garfield's offerings for advanced learners. The political fallout was lethal. "You don't close down excellence," says Sims, making a rare foray into Seattle school politics.

Other than closures, the superintendent's plan proposed to limit choice to save money on transportation. That's still on the table, although limiting choice, like the proposed closures, is highly controversial among parents of all races and income levels. "Neighborhood schools give rise to economic segregation, they give rise to racial segregation," says Charles Rolland, a parent and onetime deputy chief of staff for former Mayor Norm Rice.

Rolland is now active in a new group of parents and others called Communities for Public Education, which quickly came together after Manhas announced his plan last month. The group, which claims representation from more than 40 of the city's schools, is a hopeful consequence of the past month's trauma. Its articulate and energetic members, many of them drawn from schools targeted for closure, vociferously attacked the plan. But they also showed the district an army of volunteers it didn't know it had. "I knew these people were out there," says Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council PTSA. "This was a chance for them to come to the attention of the superintendent." Manhas has taken note. In his dramatic press conference pulling the plug on much of the closure plan, he referred to people who contacted him who were "willing to roll up their sleeves and help." He said he wanted to capitalize on that talent by appointing a committee of community members to help draw up a new plan to close the deficit.

Andrew Kwatinetz is typical of this newly visible group of parents. A former program manager at Microsoft now launching a new career as a screenwriter, Kwatinetz regularly volunteers and put together a student-and-parent directory at Montlake Elementary, where he has a child. When he heard that Montlake might close, he dropped everything and started attending a meeting every night. "It's been three weeks now since I've been cramming on the system," he says.

Fellow Montlake parent John Koppe, an architect who has also been involved in the movement to stop closures, says he feels a duty to stay involved now that Manhas has bowed to parents' demands. "It's very important that we have a show of force to say that we're still here and we need to come up with solutions."

Comprehensive solutions still seem a long way off, though a few suggestions are floating to the surface. Koppe thinks the district should outsource management of its properties to professionals able to do it more efficiently. In a similar vein, Charlie Mas, parent and onetime School Board candidate, suggests outsourcing property management to the city, which could levy a tax to take care of maintenance and utility costs.

City Council member Richard Conlin, in a hotly contested race for re-election, showed up at a rally before a May 18 School Board meeting and told parents that "the city will stand with you." Asked how, he said the city could buy one of the district's surplus properties, although he acknowledged that would be a partial, one-time fix. Somebody, nobody quite knows who, has suggested a city or county soda-pop tax to bail schools out, and the idea is circulating. David Della, chair of the City Council committee that deals with education, says he has no interest in proposing another tax. Nor does County Executive Sims. "We don't fund schools," he says. "That's the responsibility of the state."

So we're back to legislators, who, despite facing their own horrendous budget gap, did more favorably by schools in this year's session than they have in a long time. As a result, Seattle schools will get $3.4 million more in the 2005–06 school year than they did the year before. Wresting more money out of the state will be a test of Seattle's newfound political will to save its schools.


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