Deficit Calculus

A citizens committee proposes ways to close the schools budget gap, but some factors are vague.

A blueprint for fixing the city's schools financial crisis is ready, and to make the spending cuts pencil out, the Seattle School District would not only have to close schools but find a way to cut about $9.5 million a year in central academic and infrastructure costs. Where is the district going to find those savings, given that it has cut administrative expenses year after year until, it has said, it can't cut any more? "That's not our expertise," says Trish Dziko, co-chair of the Committee for Investing in Educational Excellence, which produced the proposal last week. Ultimately, it's not certain the committee has suggested sufficient measures to close the Seattle schools budget deficit. Even if the $9.5 million in savings is found, the school district still would have to dip into some $13.3 million in reserves over the next two years to stay out of the red.

Nevertheless, the committee's initial recommendations are ambitious and would add up to some certain savings. As indicated at the group's public meeting last month, the committee, convened by Superintendent Raj Manhas last summer after his own cost-saving proposal was roundly criticized, sees its mission as broader than examining finances. You can't look at the numbers without looking at how they align with academic goals, members say. So the committee is recommending spending as well as cuts. It wants curriculum enhancements, for example, including a beefed-up science program and expanded access to instrumental music offerings—projected to cost $3.8 million over three years.

As for cuts, the committee made good on an earlier expressed inclination to recommend school closures and a fee-based transportation plan that would reduce busing costs without limiting school choice. A proposal to limit choice in Manhas' rejected cost-cutting plan last spring drew a lot of fire. Proposed again by the committee, closing schools is still bound to be controversial. The report emphasizes the need for community "buy-in" and a rational process to choose which schools get closed. "What people were so allergic to last time was that the focus was not necessarily on academic excellence," says Dziko, whose day job is executive director of the Technology Access Foundation.

It's going to take some time to draw up a broadly supported plan for school closures, however. So the committee does not project savings until the 2007–08 school year. Other recommended action to close the deficit will also take time, notably a plan to maximize revenue from property that is no longer used for education.

That leaves little to work with in the 2006–07 school year, when, if the committee's recommended investments are adopted, Seattle Public Schools will face an approximate deficit of $20 million. Aside from use of reserves and savings from transportation cuts, the committee is relying on cuts in central expenses to make up the difference. "We don't underestimate how difficult this will be to achieve," says John Warner, the committee's other co-chair and a former Boeing executive.

What the Committee for Investing in Educational Excellence thinks should be cut, though, is not always clear. Mary Jean Ryan, a committee member who looked at central academic expenses, says the district spends a lot of money, roughly $9 million or $10 million, on teacher training, yet it does not have "a comprehensive game plan for spending those dollars." Trimming $3 million annually, she contends, would still leave considerable money for professional development.

In terms of infrastructure, committee members maintain that surely there is money that can be saved somewhere, even if they don't know where that is. Co-Chair Warner suggests that the district should try business-sector processes like "continuous quality improvement," which would rigorously scrutinize how things get done. This does not necessarily mean layoffs but looking at things such as, according to Warner, what reports are prepared that nobody reads.

The district is not so sure it can find additional infrastructure cuts. District spokesperson Peter Daniels says of Manhas: "That's the one area I know he spoke with John Warner about. Raj does feel that's going to be a real challenge."

One thing that would help is if the com-mittee's bigwigs could convince the city or county to provide some services at no cost to the district. "The city is obviously the most likely candidate," says Warner, elaborating on an idea hinted at in the report. Warner suggests that the city provide more police presence for schools. The city now provides 12 officers at high schools, but the district maintains a big security operation that costs $2.9 million a year. Warner says the city might also be able to provide, say, grounds or building maintenance.

Last week, Warner broached the subject with the mayor. "He listened politely and made no comment," Warner says. It sounds like Warner intends to try again. While the committee's final report is due Feb. 10, the committee's work might go on as it tries to rally necessary support to make projections on paper a reality.

The next public meeting of the Committee for Investing in Educational Excellence is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10, at the John Stanford Center.

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